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Trump administration gives formal notice of withdrawal from WHO

A top Democrat said Tuesday that Congress was notified of the president's move.
The World Health Organization headquarters headquarters in Geneva.
The World Health Organization headquarters in Geneva.Fabrice Coffrini / AFP - Getty Images

WASHINGTON — The United States officially notified the United Nations on Tuesday of its withdrawal from the World Health Organization, a White House official said.

The notice, which comes as the coronavirus pandemic continues to spread around the globe, was submitted to the U.N. secretary-general and to Congress. The withdrawal is expected to take effect July 6, 2021.

A spokesperson told NBC News that the WHO was aware of reports but declined to comment further.

Lawmakers from both parties, including Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., swiftly criticized the move.

"I disagree with the president's decision," Alexander, chairman of the Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee, said in a statement. "Certainly there needs to be a good, hard look at mistakes the World Health Organization might have made in connection with coronavirus, but the time to do that is after the crisis has been dealt with, not in the middle of it.

"Withdrawing U.S. membership could, among other things, interfere with clinical trials that are essential to the development of vaccines, which citizens of the United States as well as others in the world need," he added. "And withdrawing could make it harder to work with other countries to stop viruses before they get to the United States."

The top-ranking Democrat on the committee, Patty Murray of Washington, called the withdrawal "an abdication of America's role as a global leader and it is the opposite of putting America first— it will put America at risk."

"Refusing to work with our partners across the world to fight this pandemic will only prolong the crisis, further undermine our international standing, and leave us less prepared for future crises," she said in a statement. "President Trump needs to realize this crisis doesn't recognize borders and hiding from it or passing the blame won't make it go away or make him any less responsible."

Trump said at the White House in late May that the U.S. would be "terminating" its relationship with the WHO over its response to the COVID-19 pandemic.

"Because they have failed to make the requested and greatly needed reforms, we will be today terminating our relationship with the World Health Organization and redirecting those funds to other worldwide and deserving urgent public health needs," Trump said. "The world needs answers from China on the virus. We must have transparency."

That followed an announcement by Trump in April that the U.S. was halting funding to the organization pending a review. In 2019, the U.S. contribution was about 15 percent of the WHO's budget.

A State Department spokesperson said the U.S. has "worked to scale down its engagement with the WHO" since Trump's May announcement.

"The President has been clear that the WHO needs to get its act together," the spokesperson said. "That starts with demonstrating significant progress and the ability to prevent, detect, and respond to infectious disease outbreaks with transparency and accountability. The United States will continue efforts to reform the WHO and other international organizations to ensure they operate with transparency, fulfill their mandates, and hold governments accountable for their commitments under international law."

A president typically does not have the ability to unilaterally redirect congressionally appropriated funding, and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., had called the threat "dangerous" and "illegal" in April.

Sen. Bob Menendez of New Jersey, the top Democrat on the Foreign Relations Committee, wrote Tuesday on Twitter that the Trump administration had notified Congress of its plans.

"Congress received notification that POTUS officially withdrew the U.S. from the @WHO in the midst of a pandemic," he wrote, using the abbreviation for "president of the United States."

Menendez went on to excoriate the president for his actions during the pandemic: "To call Trump's response to COVID chaotic & incoherent doesn't do it justice. This won't protect American lives or interests — it leaves Americans sick & America alone."

Sen. Jim Risch, R-Idaho, chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee, did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

According to an NBC News tracker, almost 3 million cases of the coronavirus have been confirmed in the United States as of Tuesday, with almost 132,000 deaths attributable to the outbreak.