White House's case against World Health Organization crumbles

Despite Trump's talk of a cover-up, U.S. officials knew what the World Health Organization knew in real time.
Image: World Health Organization
The headquarters of the World Health Organization in Geneva, Switzerland on April 8, 2019.Jamey Keaten / AP
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By Steve Benen

In January, the World Health Organization issued global warnings about the need for "isolation" and "prevention" measures to prevent the spread of the coronavirus. At the time, Donald Trump was dismissive of the threat, assuring the public that he wasn't worried about the danger because "we have it totally under control."

The president, however, believes he has an explanation for the juxtaposition: the WHO, the Republican insisted last week, was "covering up" the crisis. Indeed, Trump used this argument to justify his highly controversial decision to halt U.S. financial support for the World Health Organization.

The White House's line, however, appears to have effectively collapsed. The Washington Post reported:

More than a dozen U.S. researchers, physicians and public health experts, many of them from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, were working full time at the Geneva headquarters of the World Health Organization as the novel coronavirus emerged late last year and transmitted real-time information about its discovery and spread in China to the Trump administration, according to U.S. and international officials.... Senior Trump-appointed health officials also consulted regularly at the highest levels with the WHO as the crisis unfolded, the officials said.

Keep in mind, as Dana Milbank noted, when Trump tries to rationalize his decision to cut off funding for the world's public health body in the middle of a pandemic, he specifically argued that the WHO failed to "share information in a timely and transparent fashion."

But this obviously wasn't quite right: U.S. officials knew what the World Health Organization knew in real time.

Indeed, Milbank's column added, "15 officials from his administration were embedded with the WHO in Geneva, working full time, hand-in-glove with the organization on the virus from the very first day China disclosed the outbreak to the world, Dec. 31. At least six other U.S. officials at WHO headquarters dedicated most of their time to the virus, and two others worked remotely with the WHO on covid-19 full time. In the weeks that followed, they and other U.S. government scientists engaged in all major deliberations and decisions at the WHO on the novel coronavirus, had access to all information, and contributed significantly to the world body's conclusions and recommendations."

When Trump started lashing out at the World Health Organization, it had all the characteristics of a post-hoc rationalization: the president had cycled through a series of people and institutions he hoped to blame for his administration's missteps, and the WHO became a convenient target that struggled to fight back.

But it looks like he'll need to keep looking for a credible scapegoat.