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Trump Ramps Up His Battle With World Health Organization

Yuval Rosenberg

President Trump threatened late Monday to permanently stop funding the World Health Organization and “reconsider” U.S. membership in the group if it does not “commit to major substantive improvements within the next 30 days.”

Trump didn’t specify what changes he is seeking, but in a scathing four-page letter to WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus posted to Twitter shortly before 11 p.m., the president repeated many of the accusations he has leveled in recent weeks against the United Nations agency and its response to the Covid-19 pandemic. He alleged that the WHO ignored early reports of the virus spreading in Wuhan, China; repeated inaccurate or misleading information from the Chinese government while failing to share other information; and failed to press China for an independent investigation into the origins of the virus. Trump again criticized what he called the WHO’s “alarming lack of independence” from Beijing.

“It is clear the repeated missteps by you and your organization in responding to the pandemic have been extremely costly for the world,” Trump wrote. “The only way forward for the World Health Organization is if it can actually demonstrate independence from China.”

The background: Trump had initially praised China’s response to the pandemic, but as the U.S. death toll rose and criticism of his administration’s own response mounted, he shifted to attacking both WHO and Beijing. Last month, Trump suspended U.S. payments to WHO for 60 days, sparking criticism and an outpouring of international statements supporting the organization and warning of the risks of cutting its funding in the midst of a pandemic. The United States is the largest source of funding for the agency. About $400 million in annual funds to WHO have been halted since last month, according to The Washington Post.

A measure adopted at a virtual gathering of WHO member nations this week calls for the organization to undertake an independent review of its pandemic response at the “earliest appropriate moment.”

The responses: The WHO said in a statement that it was “considering the contents” of Trump’s letter. A Chinese official, meanwhile, said the Trump administration was violating its international obligations and “trying to mislead the public, smear China and shift blame for its own incompetent response,” according to the Post.

Medical journal The Lancet knocked Trump for what it said was a “factually incorrect” statement in his letter. Trump had written that WHO had ignored credible reports, including from The Lancet, in December about the virus spreading in Wuhan, China. The Lancet said it “published no report in December, 2019, referring to a virus or outbreak in Wuhan or anywhere else in China.” Its first reports on the virus were published January 24, it said.

“The allegations levelled against WHO in President Trump’s letter are serious and damaging to efforts to strengthen international cooperation to control this pandemic,” The Lancet statement said. “It is essential that any review of the global response is based on a factually accurate account of what took place in December and January.”

Why it matters: Trump’s latest threat is likely to heighten concerns that the United States is ceding its leadership role and allowing China to enhance its global standing — criticisms that the administration strongly rejects. China has pledged an additional $30 billion to the WHO. Chinese President Xi Jinping this week called on countries to rally behind the WHO and pledged $2 billion to fight the pandemic around the world, a move U.S. officials saw as a further attempt to fend off accountability for China’s coronavirus response.

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