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Trump repeats WHO funding threat

President Trump is likely to announce restrictions on U.S. funding for the World Health Organization this week over its handling of the coronavirus pandemic, as the administration and conservative allies have ramped up their criticism that the United Nations agency catered to China early in the outbreak and jeopardized global health.

Trump hinted at a temporary hold on U.S. funding Friday but said he wanted to wait until after Easter to announce anything. He said his administration would discuss the organization “in great detail” this week, adding that he did not want to go further “before we had all the facts.”

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Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and other U.S. officials are expected to recommend to Trump ways to dock or condition payments to the agency as Republicans in Congress seek documentation of WHO dealings with China, said people familiar with White House and State Department discussions who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss the private conversations.

“They are very, very China-centric,” Trump said Friday. “China always seems to get the better of the argument, and I don’t like that, I really don’t like that. I don’t think that’s appropriate. I don’t think it’s fair to the American people.”

Speaking at the daily White House coronavirus news conference, Trump focused on the level of U.S. funding and the disparity with China’s contribution. The administration review is expected to be broader, to consider how well the agency responded in December, January and February as the virus began spreading rapidly in China and then beyond its borders, said the people familiar with the talks.

On Monday, Trump repeated criticism of the WHO but gave no specifics about any planned funding cuts or the review process involved. He said he anticipated a decision by the end of the week.

“Those are all issues currently being worked on for the President to make a decision this week,” a senior administration official said Monday in response to questions about how funding cuts would work, including whether they would come from priorities and accounts already approved by Congress.

The official, like others interviewed for this report, requested anonymity to discuss a pending decision.

At issue are ongoing voluntary U.S. payments to the U.N. health body, based in Geneva. The United States is the largest single donor to the WHO, with “assessed” or mandatory funding and larger voluntary contributions that often go to fund specific projects or crisis responses.

The United States has committed to provide the agency with $893 million during its current two-year funding period, a State Department spokesperson said. The figure comports with donor information provided by the WHO, which lists the United States as the largest donor.

Congress has ignored Trump administration budget proposals that would slash funding for the WHO, instead approving funding levels that have remained roughly $400 million or higher for several years.

Sen. Robert Menendez (D-N.J.) asked the administration to expand contributions to the WHO to help in the global response to covid-19, the disease the novel coronavirus causes. In a letter to Pompeo late last month, the top Democrat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee said the United States should do more to meet the WHO’s call for $675 million for pandemic response.

“Given the WHO’s indispensable role, it is imperative that the United States increase contributions,” beyond $14.7 million pledged to date, Menendez wrote.

He also asked Pompeo to address what he said is an approximately $41 million shortfall in U.S. disbursements of WHO funds approved by Congress.

Republicans in Congress are seeking documents from the WHO and calling for investigations of contacts between WHO officials and Chinese government officials. The White House backs those efforts but could hold up funding before results are in.

“The money is not guaranteed if WHO does not do its mission,” a senior administration official said.

The official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because the administration has not decided how to proceed, said the quarrel is less with the organization’s health professionals and more with its political leadership.

“The problem is not the WHO system. The system has good people,” the official said. “It’s about comments made from the leadership — which went beyond what I am told their own staff wanted to say.”

The president has piled on to rising conservative criticism of the WHO, which is paired with criticism of China as deceptive and defensive during the crucial early weeks of the crisis.

But this criticism ignores that Trump also was complimentary of China’s efforts to combat the outbreak earlier this year — a stance that may have been influenced by his desire for a trade deal with Beijing.

“China has been working very hard to contain the Coronavirus,” the president tweeted on Jan. 24. “The United States greatly appreciates their efforts and transparency. It will all work out well. In particular, on behalf of the American People, I want to thank President Xi!”

Weeks later, on Feb. 18, Trump again complimented President Xi Jinping’s efforts to mitigate the outbreak.

“I think President Xi is working very hard. As you know, I spoke with him recently,” he told reporters. “He’s working really hard. It’s a tough problem. I think he’s going to do — look, I’ve seen them build hospitals in a short period of time. I really believe he wants to get that done, and he wants to get it done fast. Yes, I think he’s doing it very professionally.”

Trump later changed his tone toward Beijing, saying it could have provided more information earlier about the spread of the coronavirus.

“No, they weren’t transparent. They were transparent at that time, but when we saw what happened, they could have been transparent much earlier than they were,” he said on March 21.

Critics of the WHO note that it has also taken a soft approach toward U.S. efforts to mitigate the pandemic despite widespread criticism of how the Trump administration has responded. The question, they argue, is whether the WHO is taking a conciliatory approach toward major financial patrons, including the United States and China, as opposed to solely favoring the communist regime in Beijing.

For Trump, the focus on the WHO, a U.N. entity, is an attempt to shift some blame from his own early reaction, when he dismissed the virus as no threat to the United States. The president has said he “inherited” a health system that wasn’t up to the task and blamed Democrats and the news media for hyping the threat. But he has never offered a full accounting of what his own administration was doing to protect the country in late 2019 and the first weeks of January, the period before and during the entrance and initial spread of the virus in the United States.

Accurate assessments of the risk at the outset could have given the U.S. government a jump on the need for social distancing and other preventive measures and lead time to procure additional tests, masks, respirators and other equipment now in short supply, said two people who have spoken with Trump about the WHO.

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“We’re going to have an announcement on the World Health Organization sometime next week,” Trump said Friday. “As you know, we give them approximately $500 million a year. And we’re going to be talking about that subject next week. We’ll have a lot to say about it. We’ll hold it.”

He had started attacking the agency by name several days before, on Tuesday, when he tweeted “The WHO really blew it” and noted the heavy share of U.S. funding the agency receives.

Speaking to reporters hours later, Trump went further.

“We’re going to put a hold on money spent to the WHO. We’re going to put a very powerful hold on it, and we’re going to see,” he said. “They called it wrong. They call it wrong. They really, they missed the call.”

He backed off that threat during the same news briefing, saying the decision had not been made, but has continued to criticize the agency.

Accusing the WHO of being slow to react allows Trump an I-told-you-so moment. The organization pointedly dissented from Trump’s decision in late January to impose severe restrictions on travelers from China. Trump has claimed ever since that the decision saved American lives and complained that he was not given credit for foresight.

“They criticized me very strongly when I said that we’re going to shut down flights coming in from China, and especially from certain parts of China, but from China generally,” Trump said Wednesday. “We were criticized very badly.”

Pointing a finger at the WHO also fits with Trump’s long-standing skepticism about the United Nations and complaints that the United States spends too much and gets too little from international organizations.

On Friday, he likened the WHO to the World Trade Organization, a much more frequent target of Trump’s ire, saying that both bodies have routinely taken advantage of the United States.

For many conservatives aligned with Trump, the issue is equally about skepticism that the WHO is bloated, ineffective or biased and about alleged Chinese perfidy.

Former U.N. ambassador Nikki Haley appeared twice on Fox News Channel last week to accuse the agency of covering for China. She backed a call for a full investigation from Sen. James E. Risch (R-Idaho), chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.

Risch is expected to speak by phone early this week with WHO Director General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, before the Senate effort moves ahead, a Republican Senate aide said.

As other conservatives have done, Haley pointed to Taiwan, which China considers a rogue province, to make the point that China was duplicitous.

“I mean, look at the timeline. You’ve got, December 30, Taiwan goes and tells the WHO, ‘We believe and have evidence that there’s human-to-human transmission.’ Then you have, January 14, the head of the WHO, Tedros, says, ‘We don’t see any evidence of human-to-human transmission.’ ” Haley said Friday on “Fox and Friends.”

At a news briefing last week, Tedros predicted that the United States “will continue to contribute its share.”

“I would like to take this opportunity to thank the U.S. for its generous support so far,” he said.

On Thursday, several Republican members of the House Oversight Committee requested documents and other information from the WHO about its relationship with China and its response to the pandemic.

“Throughout the crisis, the WHO has shied away from placing any blame on the Chinese government, which is in essence the Communist Party of China,” the lawmakers wrote to the WHO chief.

Rep. James Comer (R-Ky.) was among those signing the letter. In an interview Friday, he said he “100 percent” supports a hold on U.S. funding for the WHO, which amounts to about 15 percent of the agency’s budget.

“You would stop the check” while questions are answered, he said.

Comer said he and his colleagues want to know “did they drop the ball and make honest mistakes or were they going along with Chinese propaganda and taking China’s word for it on what the problem was.”

Comer said the agency’s early pronouncements about the outbreak were “completely inaccurate.”

Several Republican Senate aides interviewed about the WHO’s response criticized it as halting and incomplete but said it is not yet clear whether the agency was complicit in any Chinese whitewash of the outbreak.

In the early going, the agency was balancing its need for access to on-the-ground information from China, which would affect the effectiveness of the agency’s response, with its duty to speak truthfully about the threat, one Republican Senate aide said.

The WHO’s complicity in any coverup will rest on whether the agency went beyond a need to publicly extend the benefit of the doubt and actively fronted for the Chinese government, the aide said.

Header: President Trump speaks with members of the coronavirus task force during a briefing at the White House on Friday. (Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)

Original: The Washington Post – Carol Morello contributed to this report.