President Donald Trump announced Tuesday that he is halting funding for the World Health Organization pending a review of its response to the initial coronavirus outbreak after the organization criticized his restrictions on travel from China.
Trump accused the WHO of "severely mismanaging and covering up" the coronavirus crisis, specifically the initial outbreak in Wuhan, China. He took particular issue with the agency's criticism of his order to temporarily deny entry to the U.S. by most foreign nationals who had recently been in China. The order was issued Jan. 31, when China was the center of the pandemic.
"With the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic, we have deep concerns about whether America's generosity has been put to the best use possible," Trump said. "The reality is that the WHO failed to adequately obtain and share information in a timely and transparent fashion.
"It could have been contained at its source," he added.
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Trump's move to halt funding for the agency that oversees international public health has raised questions about whether it could affect efforts by other countries to curtail coronavirus cases.
Trump claimed that the WHO "pushed China's misinformation about the virus ... and there was no need for travel bans."
The organization was informed of the first cases on Dec. 31. The next day the agency requested information from Chinese officials, and the Wuhan market where the outbreak is believed to have originated was closed for disinfection, according to a WHO report. Then, on Jan. 30, the organization declared a global health emergency when the number of cases at the time hit 10,000.
Congressional Democrats on Tuesday night disputed Trump's authority to unilaterally halt funding to the WHO.
Evan Hollander, spokesperson for the House Appropriations Committee, called Trump's announced move "a desperate attempt to deflect blame" and said, "The President does not have the unilateral authority to withhold the United States' contribution to the World Health Organization."
Rep. Nita Lowey, D-N.Y., chairwoman of the Appropriations Committee, in a statement referred to past comments from U.N. Secretary-General António Guterres in which he said, "We are only as strong as the weakest health system in our interconnected world."
She said that if the virus is not defeated around the world, the United States will remain at risk and that Trump should not be taking away valuable resources in the fight.
"I hope the President will see the need to use all avenues to defeat this virus. If not, Congress will ensure that the United States Government will," Lowey said.
Trump complained about the WHO's being "China-centric" and said that the country sends $500 million a year to the organization. The U.S. is the largest contributor to the WHO out of 196 countries, accounting for roughly 15 percent of the agency's budget. It sent more than $57.8 million earlier this year and also contributes additional money to special projects.
The president previously said that he was only looking into cutting funding and that he would be looking at it "very carefully." At Tuesday's briefing, he said the WHO "failed in this basic duty and must be held accountable."
"The WHO failed to investigate credible reports from sources in Wuhan that conflicted directly with the Chinese government's official accounts," Trump said.
"Well, we're going to be dealing with countries," Trump said, adding that he's going to "channel" that money to places that need it.
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Dr. Patrice Harris, the president of the American Medical Association, excoriated the president in a statement Tuesday for making the move "during the worst public health crisis in a century."
"Cutting funding to the WHO — rather than focusing on solutions — is a dangerous move at a precarious moment for the world," Harris said. "The AMA is deeply concerned by this decision and its wide-ranging ramifications, and we strongly urge the President to reconsider."
Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., vice chairman of the Appropriations Committee, also sharply criticized Trump in a statement Tuesday, saying that the WHO could have "been stricter with China" but that it still needs "our strong support" right now.
"Withholding funds for WHO in the midst of the worst pandemic in a century makes as much sense as cutting off ammunition to an ally as the enemy closes in," Leahy said. "The White House knows that it grossly mishandled this crisis from the beginning, ignoring multiple warnings and squandering valuable time, dismissing medical science, comparing COVID 19 to the common cold, and saying 'everything will be fine'."
Guterres said in a statement Tuesday about Trump's WHO funding announcement that it is on the front lines providing guidance, training, equipment and other assistance to countries around the world, including those most vulnerable.
"Once we have finally turned the page on this epidemic, there must be a time to look back fully to understand how such a disease emerged and spread its devastation so quickly across the globe, and how all those involved reacted to the crisis," he said, adding that lessons learned will be invaluable in the future.
"But now is not that time," Guterres said. "As it is not that time, it is also not the time to reduce the resources for the operations of the World Health Organization or any other humanitarian organization in the fight against the virus."
CORRECTION (April 15, 2020, 5:50 p.m. ET): An earlier version of this article mischaracterized President Donald Trump's order on travel from China. The order barred entry to the U.S. of most foreign nationals who had recently been in China; it did not restrict travel to China. The article also misstated when Trump issued the order.