Looking for an enemy, Trump targets World Health Organization

Trump needs an enemy he can blame for the U.S. response to the pandemic. He just can't seem to settle on one.
Image: World Health Organization
The headquarters of the World Health Organization in Geneva, Switzerland on April 8, 2019.Jamey Keaten / AP

There was an odd moment during yesterday's White House press briefing in which Donald Trump accidentally made some news: the president declared that his administration is "going to put a hold" on U.S. funding for the World Health Organization. He added, "We're going to put a very powerful hold on it."

It was, to be sure, a curious announcement. After all, cutting off money for the WHO during a global pandemic makes about as much sense as trying to cut CDC funding during a pandemic. (Oh wait, Trump wanted to do that, too.)

But a little later in the same briefing, a reporter asked whether such a move was wise. "Maybe not," the president replied. "I'm not saying we're going to do it but we're going to look at it." Reminded that he'd said 15 minutes earlier that he's "going to put a hold" on funding, Trump replied, "No, I didn't."

As strange as it was to hear the president denying he said what everyone had just heard him say, there was a larger, more substantive takeaway: the American president appears to have settled on a new foe. The New York Times reported:

In effect, Mr. Trump sought to denounce the W.H.O. for the very missteps and failures that have been leveled at him and his administration.... In fact, the W.H.O. sounded the alarm in the earliest days of the crisis, declaring a "public health emergency of international concern" a day before the United States secretary of health and human services announced the country's own public health emergency and weeks before Mr. Trump declared a national emergency.

For those inclined to take the president's gripes seriously, the basic nature of Trump's complaint is that he sees the WHO as being too closely aligned with China. Of course, if the White House cut off funding for the international organization, it would likely push the WHO even closer to China.

But let's not miss the forest for the trees. As we recently discussed, Trump seems to realize that someone will be blamed for the United States' response to the coronavirus crisis, and he's desperately scrambling to make sure the responsibility doesn't fall on him. NBC News reported recently that the president "has been hedging his bets" by pointing to all sorts of possible culprits.

To that end, Trump -- who seems to feel most comfortable when he has a target for his grievances -- has spent weeks lashing out at Democrats, governors, journalists, China, the Obama administration, and even General Motors. Last week, the Republican even turned his sights on hospitals, suggesting New York medical centers were lying about needed resources.

The Washington Post last week published a list of "everyone and everything Trump has blamed for his coronavirus response." It was not an especially short piece.

And now the president -- who famously declared, "I don't take responsibility at all" -- appears eager to add the World Health Organization to his growing list of culprits.

Trump needs an enemy. He just can't seem to settle on one.