At the State Department, officials are stripping references to the WHO from virus fact sheets, and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has instructed his employees to “cut out the middle man” when it comes to public health initiatives the United States previously supported through the WHO.
The United States will now attempt to reroute the WHO funds to nongovernmental organizations involved in public health, according to interviews with U.S. officials and an internal memo obtained by The Washington Post.
“The Secretary has asked the State Department and USAID to identify and utilize alternative implementers for foreign assistance programs beyond the WHO,” read a memo sent to State Department employees in recent days.
At the U.N. Security Council, the Trump administration has delayed a resolution responding to the health crisis, which the French have been trying to advance for weeks, because it disagrees with draft language that expresses support for the WHO, European officials said.
U.S. opposition to the WHO also prevented health ministers at a virtual Group of 20 meeting from issuing a joint statement on the pandemic this month.
The White House is imploring allies to question the organization’s credibility and push claims that its employees routinely go on excessive “luxury travel,” as one White House official, Sarah Makin-Acciani, told a group of surrogates in a recent phone call. She offered no evidence during the call, a transcript obtained by The Post indicates.
“It has been impossible to find a common ground with the U.S. about the views on the work and role of WHO,” said a senior European official, who like others spoke on the condition of anonymity to describe diplomatic discussions.
WHO officials initially hoped they could stave off a halt in U.S. funding and a messy public confrontation by making a symbolic concession to Trump, but discussions between the organization and the U.S. ambassador to the WHO, Andrew Bremberg, failed to ease tensions.
Trump, who has said the outbreak could have been contained with “very little death” if the WHO had done its job, reiterated his complaints during a Group of Seven conference call this month. World leaders cautioned that it would be unwise to “switch horses” in the middle of the race and that an investigation into mistakes could be conducted after the crisis subsides, European officials familiar with the conversation said. After the call, several G-7 leaders issued public statements in support of the WHO.
The Trump administration’s moves could prove far more damaging to the WHO than the temporary halt in funding, said experts who reviewed the State Department memo and tracked U.S. actions.
“A 60-day pause to U.S. funding is a headache for the WHO but not necessarily an existential crisis. That said, if State starts giving funds to other implementers to carry out health programs the WHO would have overseen, there is a risk that the U.S. starts spreading resources out in an inefficient, fragmentary fashion,” said Richard Gowan, a senior fellow at the International Crisis Group.
“If this crisis has taught us one thing, it is that we need better international coordination to handle global heath challenges,” he added.
A spokeswoman for the Department of Health and Human Services, Katherine McKeogh, said the Trump administration “seeks to refocus the WHO on fulfilling its core missions of preparedness, response and stakeholder coordination.”
The WHO, born out of the ashes of World War II “to promote and protect the health of all peoples,” is designed to identify emerging contagion and “support the delivery of essential health services in fragile settings,” according to a statement on its website.
Trump and his top aides have criticized the organization for not thoroughly vetting information from China about the virus and taking too many of China’s statements at “face value,” the president said.
“So much death has been caused by their mistakes,” Trump told reporters at the White House in reference to the WHO.
Trump has said the organization “pushed China’s misinformation” and is inherently “China-centric,” a criticism shared by other governments in part because of Beijing’s lobbying on behalf of key individuals for influential WHO postings.
But critics say the president is scapegoating the WHO to distract from charges that he responded slowly to the virus and waited too long to implement protective measures that would have saved lives in the United States. They also question the value of seeking alternatives to the WHO at this juncture.
The institution’s defenders note that since late January, WHO Director General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus has held near-daily news conferences about the virus and warned leaders that the window for stopping its spread was quickly “closing.”
Officials from the Trump administration and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention were embedded in the WHO and continue to work with it. For months they have relayed information about the virus’s discovery and spread in China, even as Trump has publicly railed against the agency.
Former administration officials said the Trump team supported Tedros in his bid for the position and even met with him at the White House. Among those who have spoken regularly with him since his election is Ivanka Trump, the president’s daughter, officials said.
Both the president and his adviser daughter had friendly calls with Tedros in March, and he is said to have been surprised by the cuts and the harsh words, officials said.
While the administration has sharply criticized the Chinese government for withholding information about the virus, the president’s treatment of China has varied. He has lambasted Beijing for spreading the “Chinese virus” but praised the government’s transparency and played down the need to highlight its missteps. “I think we all understand where it came from. And President Xi [Jinping] understands that. And we don’t have to make a big deal out of it,” Trump said at a recent briefing.
On Tuesday, the State Department rolled out its plan to reroute money that went to the WHO but did not name any specific group it would fund and could not say whether the United States will coordinate with the organization on health matters going forward.
“We cannot tell you,” said John Barsa, the acting administrator of USAID, noting that the administration was still carrying out a review of the policy.
Pompeo has suggested that the United States, which contributed $553 million to the WHO in 2019, may withhold all funding to the organization in the future. On Wednesday night, he declined to rule out the possibility that the United States would seek Tedros’s removal as a condition for resuming funding.
“It may be the case that the United States can never return to underwriting, having U.S. taxpayer dollars go to the WHO,” he told Fox News host Laura Ingraham.
Pompeo has also raised the idea, in private discussions with other officials, of launching a parallel structure to the WHO that would receive U.S. coronavirus funding, said two officials familiar with the discussions.
The Trump administration’s moves against the WHO have concerned Democrats and some Republicans who view undercutting the institution as risky in the middle of a global crisis.
“I’m reluctant to think that the middle of the fight is the time to eliminate one of the partners in the fight, no matter how many concerns you have about what they’re doing,” said Sen. Roy Blunt (R-Mo.), who leads the Senate panel overseeing health funding.
There is also concern that the United States, which donates more to the WHO than any other country, could lose influence to China, which on Thursday committed to giving $30 million to the organization.
Critics of Tedros say he and his deputies failed to question China’s claims in mid-January that there was no clear evidence of human-to-human transmission of the coronavirus, and that they missed opportunities to urge nations to take preemptive action.
An Ethiopian national and microbiologist by training, Tedros has also come under attack from 17 House Republicans, who last week called on him to resign, saying the WHO plays a “vital role” but that they have lost confidence in him.
Organizations that work with the WHO have said that while it could have responded to the pandemic more quickly, attempts to undercut it are misguided.
“WHO is not a mere ‘middle man.’ WHO plays an indispensable multilateral role and is the only organization with the global capacity, reach and mandate to support the response to a pandemic that is threatening every country on Earth,” said Sheba Crocker, the vice president for humanitarian policy and practice at Care USA.
The Trump administration is considering keeping some funding for the WHO to fight polio and the coronavirus in seven countries, Bloomberg News reported on Friday. The move could serve as an acknowledgment that certain WHO programs are not easily replaceable, but one senior U.S. official cautioned that no final decision has been made on the exemptions.
Some conservatives defended rerouting funds away from the WHO, arguing that the organization has paid insufficient attention to emerging pandemics and that channeling money through it is no guarantee that health crises will be handled in a more efficient way.
“WHO spends a lot of money on things other than communicable diseases,” said Brett Schaefer, a fellow at the Heritage Foundation, noting the organization’s work on heart disease, cancer and health emergency programs.
While acknowledging that funding piecemeal global health efforts could lack a global perspective, he countered that the U.N. system, which includes the WHO and the U.N. Children’s Fund, can also be “fragmented and duplicative.”
U.S. attendance at WHO-related events has begun to slip, officials said. On Friday, the United States did not participate in the launch of a WHO global effort on vaccines and drugs related to coronavirus. WHO leaders “really, really” hoped for U.S. attendance and asked Washington repeatedly to participate, a WHO official said. HHS Secretary Alex Azar did not take part in this month’s virtual G-20 meeting of health ministers because he was celebrating Easter, a spokeswoman said.
For weeks, the Security Council has been working on a resolution calling for a global cease-fire pertaining to armed conflict in response to the pandemic. A draft offered by the French and viewed by The Post urged member states to “share timely and transparent information regarding the outbreak of COVID-19” and “support the full implementation of the WHO International Health Regulations.”
That reference to the WHO was opposed by the United States, European officials said.
A State Department official said the United States continues to support a global cease-fire in principle but also needs to look out for its “legitimate” interests.
A recent version of the resolution, crafted by Tunisia and France, includes placeholder language in the hope of resolving the WHO dispute later. A “compromise related to the language on WHO” will be decided on “at the end of the negotiation,” reads a draft obtained by The Post.
As negotiations continue, European officials view domestic American politics as an obstacle to an effective response to the crisis.
“The U.S. administration is very fixated on the reelection campaign and on who can get blamed for this catastrophic covid-19 situation in the U.S.,” said a senior European official. “They are blaming WHO and China for it. Therefore it is very difficult to agree on a common language about the WHO.”
Seung Min Kim contributed to this report.