President Donald Trump speaks at the White House on March 29.Screenshot/White House

Trump announces he's 'terminating' the US's relationship with the World Health Organization


President Donald Trump announced on Friday that he was "terminating" the US's relationship with the World Health Organization over its response to the coronavirus pandemic.

"We will be today terminating our relationship with the World Health Organization," Trump said at an event in the Rose Garden, adding that the US would be "redirecting those funds to other worldwide and deserving urgent global public-health needs."

During his brief announcement, Trump claimed that China pressured WHO to "mislead the world" when the coronavirus was discovered in Wuhan and argued that China "has total control over" the organization.

Trump's decision to cut ties with WHO is an "impulsive, punitive move that will ultimately hurt American standing and influence in global health policy," said Dr. Jack Chow, a US ambassador for global HIV/AIDS in the George W. Bush administration who previously served as a WHO assistant director-general.

"The US withdrawal from WHO will disrupt its operations worldwide and put the status and roles of the American scientists and doctors working there into a limbo," Chow told Insider on Friday. "As the US is a preeminent contributor to critical health programs ranging from HIV/AIDS treatment to polio eradication, Trump's decision will provoke a critical question: Will other countries and NGOs seek to fill in what America has left behind at WHO, or will WHO be left to work at a debilitated level?"

WHO plays a crucial role in assisting and advising developing countries on public-health crises. Along these lines, experts have repeatedly warned that undermining the UN's health agency could exacerbate the coronavirus pandemic by weakening its ability to assist countries with a lack of resources.

"In the history of global health diplomacy, Trump has cast asunder the longstanding progression of American partnerships with other countries to create a safer world through health," Chow said. "Amid the incessant drive of COVID-19 into poorer countries with weak health systems, WHO may have to triage which countries they can help the most, but leaving behind gaps of assistance among many others."

"If we throw a punch at WHO, we're just going to end up connecting with our own jaw here, because it will make it harder to stop the outbreak globally, and that is bad for our own interests," Jeremy Konyndyk, who oversaw the Obama administration's response to the Ebola outbreak in West Africa as a director for foreign disaster assistance at USAID, told Insider after Trump in April announced plans to cut funding to WHO.

Trump has repeatedly accused WHO of being too China-centric, bashing the organization for praising Beijing's transparency in the early days of the coronavirus outbreak. But the president praised China's transparency in late January and praised the Chinese government's handling of the crisis several times throughout February.

As the coronavirus spread in the US, Trump shifted to blaming China for the pandemic and criticizing WHO.

Critics of Trump have said the president has made WHO a scapegoat in an attempt to deflect from his own failures regarding the coronavirus pandemic, particularly as the US remains the epicenter of the crisis, with the most reported cases and confirmed fatalities.

"WHO is a pretty convenient scapegoat because they can't fight back," Konyndyk said last month. "They can't and don't criticize their member states. If the US is lobbing accusations at them, they kind of just have to sit there and take it, just by design. It's a politically convenient scapegoat for the White House, but on the merits it's ridiculous to think they're somehow responsible for the slow US response."

Though experts like Konyndyk have said WHO is not perfect and has room for improvement, it's widely agreed that the US benefits from its relationship with the global health agency.

"We helped create @WHO. We are part of it. It is part of the world. Turning our back on WHO makes us and the world less safe," Dr. Tom Frieden, the former director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, tweeted on Friday after Trump's announcement.

There are also concerns among congressional lawmakers and former US officials that Trump's pulling the country away from WHO will offer China far more influence within the organization.

"If your complaint is that China has too much influence at the WHO then maybe don't hand the WHO over to China," Sen. Chris Murphy, a top Democrat on the Foreign Relations Committee, tweeted on Friday.

Similarly, Ben Rhodes, who was a deputy national security adviser under President Barack Obama, tweeted that Trump "is so mad about Chinese influence at the WHO that he's going to dramatically increase Chinese influence at the WHO."

It's unclear whether Trump can unilaterally terminate the US government's relationship with WHO, as much of the funding provided to the organization is appropriated by Congress. The US contributes roughly $400 million a year to WHO, accounting for about 14% of its budget.