Having already heaped blame on China for its role in the covid-19 outbreak, President Trump and his allies opened a new front in the campaign this week by targeting the World Health Organization, calling the institution complicit in Beijing’s coverup of the breadth and severity of the pandemic.
Critics contend that the White House is employing a cynical strategy, in the middle of a global health and economic crisis, to deflect culpability over Trump’s own mishandling of the U.S. response to the novel coronavirus and create another foil to rally his conservative base ahead of the 2020 presidential election. A fundraising message to supporters Tuesday, sent hours after the president announced the withholding of funds from the WHO, asks for contributions to “hold China accountable.”
On Wednesday, Trump accused the agency of willfully doing China’s bidding, at the expense of global health, as he justified the holdup in funding.
“Took them a long time to realize what was going, but I have a feeling they knew exactly what was going,” Trump said at the daily White House coronavirus briefing, where he again touted the ban he imposed on most air travel from China in late January over WHO objections.
World Health Organization responds to Trump’s freeze on agency fundingTedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, the head of the WHO, addressed April 15 President Trump’s move to halt U.S. funding of the agency amid the coronavirus pandemic. (Reuters)
Trump’s allies argued that the move against the WHO is consistent with the administration’s immediate goals of countering Chinese propaganda over the origins and spread of the virus and with its longer-term campaign to contest Beijing’s rising influence at the WHO, a U.N. agency, and other global bodies.
“This is covid-19, not covid-1 folks. And so, you would think the people charged with the World Health Organization facts and figures would be on top of that,” White House counselor Kellyanne Conway said on Fox News on Wednesday, as she criticized the WHO’s response.
Covid-19 is the name of the disease caused by the novel coronavirus first detected in Wuhan, China, in late 2019. The name refers to the year, not the number of previous outbreaks. The virus currently circulating has not circulated previously, hence the lack of human immunity.
“This is just a pause right now, so there is an investigation, examination to what happened. But people should know the facts. We paid over $830 million over the last two years, China paid 10 percent of that,” Conway said.
The upshot of Trump’s new focus on the WHO is that more than three months after the Chinese Communist Party first publicly acknowledged the coronavirus outbreak in the city of Wuhan, the president’s China policy remains conflicted and inconsistent.
Trump praised China’s response early on and then took a harder line as the outbreak spread. One consistency amid his vacillating rhetoric over the pandemic has been his emphasis that he has a good personal relationship with Chinese President Xi Jinping, a bond that he credits with securing a recent trade deal and to which he points as reason for hope that a bigger one is on the way.
Within the White House, the president’s decision to withhold funding from the WHO caused some public health advisers to worry that punishing the organization when the United States and other countries were facing a mounting death toll could hamper international cooperation, even as Trump said his administration would continue to work directly with other nations.
The president’s national security aides argued that the move would send a sharp signal to the United Nations, and to other countries, that the United States would not sit by idly as they kowtow to China’s burgeoning foreign policy muscle.
In a call with allies and surrogate spokespeople Wednesday, Sarah Makin-Acciani, a member of the National Security Council, said the money was being withheld for reasons including WHO “biases toward China.”
Such calls are intended to give administration allies talking points for use on television or in other settings. Audio of the call was obtained by The Washington Post.
“They failed to investigate credible reports from sources inside Wuhan that conflicted with the Chinese government’s official account,” Makin-Acciani said. “There was credible information regarding human-to-human transmission that goes back to December. They did not investigate them,” she said.
She said that the delays had set back the United States and that the WHO had remained silent on the restrictions of research and the disappearances of doctors or had not called out China’s “lack of transparency. She also cited the WHO’s position against closing wet markets in China.
“They took China’s assurances at face value, defended them and spread their misinformation,” Makin-Acciani said.
But in response to a skeptical questioner from the Heritage Foundation who said that much of the U.S. funding for the WHO was already allocated for the year, Makin-Acciani could not specify what money actually was being withheld. “The specifics are still being worked out.”
The United States is the single largest donor to the WHO, with annual contributions of more than $400 million in most recent years. The Trump administration already is late in sending some congressionally approved money pledged for 2019 and 2020.
Trump advisers and allies have said in recent days that his messaging against the WHO and China is likely to play well with his supporters, particularly his messaging against China.
Michael Pillsbury, a China expert at the conservative Hudson Institute who informally advises Trump, said the decision was in line with an administration strategy Trump authorized months ago to more aggressively challenge China’s influence on the world stage.
He pointed to the administration’s moves to prevent China from assuming leadership of the World Intellectual Property Organization in early March and to limit Beijing’s access to loans from the World Bank in December.
“This is not bubbling up from the task force,” said Pillsbury, referring to the group of advisers, led by Vice President Pence and several medical experts, that Trump appointed to coordinate the response to the coronavirus. “This came through the National Security Council framework.”
The president himself has praised China for its approach to the virus and given its authoritarian leader the benefit of the doubt, the very things his administration now identifies as the WHO’s failings. Trump’s statements of support for Xi often came within days of WHO actions that the White House now says were reckless, shortsighted or pandering.
Trump has shifted his rhetoric, initially praising Xi’s efforts to contain the outbreak and parroting Xi’s assurances that the virus would recede in warmer weather, a prediction that has proved wildly inaccurate as the death toll has risen to more than 132,000 worldwide, with more than 27,000 dead in the United States.
Trump had praised Xi’s handling of the outbreak while minimizing the risk that the virus could pose to the United States during the same period, from late 2019 through March, a period in which his administration now says the WHO threatened global health by being deferential to China.
“It’s going to be just fine,” Trump said in an interview with CNBC in Davos, Switzerland, on Jan. 22.
Asked whether he trusted China to provide “transparency” about the virus, Trump readily said he did.
“I do, I do,” Trump said. “I have a great relationship with President Xi. We just signed probably the biggest trade deal ever made. It certainly has the potential to be the biggest trade deal ever made.”
As the virus ravaged U.S. cities, including New York and Detroit, Trump sharpened his criticism of China, bolstered by U.S. intelligence assessments that Beijing is deliberately underreporting the number of deaths and infections to demonstrate that it has gained control over the virus and to restore its international reputation.
Trump had also maintained a deferential tone toward Xi during the lengthy trade war between Washington and Beijing that culminated in a “phase one” deal in January that would require China to purchase $250 billion of U.S. goods.
When a reporter asked last week whether the president was working with China on the coronavirus response, including to procure medical supplies desperately needed by U.S. hospitals, Trump suggested that his willingness to collaborate hinged on the fate of the trade pact. The two leaders pledged cooperation in a one-hour phone call in late March.
“I hope they’re going to honor that trade deal. If they don’t honor the trade deal, then I’ll tell you a different answer, but I think they will,” Trump responded. “They’re going to spend billions of dollars for agriculture.”
In that regard, the president’s move against the WHO could be interpreted as a proxy war — a way to send a message to his conservative base that he is willing to punish China, but without directly challenging Xi. The action also satisfies the growing outcry from leading conservatives, including Sen. Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.), for the United States to be tougher on the WHO.
In early April, Graham called for the United States to cut funding to the institution unless its director general, Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, was replaced.
The White House on Wednesday laid out a timeline of what it says are failures by the WHO to investigate the virus and warn the world about it.
“The WHO repeatedly parroted the Chinese government’s claims that the coronavirus was not spreading between humans, despite warnings by doctors and health officials that it was,” a White House statement said.
Michael Green, who served as a high-ranking Asia policy aide under President George W. Bush, said U.S. allies have expressed frustration over the White House’s move against the WHO. Although Green acknowledged that the agency has too often seemed willing to regurgitate Beijing’s talking points, he emphasized that allies have said the United States would be better served by working with its partners to register objections to China’s behavior than in making unilateral threats.
Trump’s campaign “clearly determined this will play well,” Green said, pointing to a Harris Poll this month that found majorities in both parties expressing distrust of China’s statements on the coronavirus. “Public views on China are deteriorating. … There’s an alignment of the political people and the national security people, as well as Trump’s own instincts to deflect blame.”