“It’s trying to deflect blame from this catastrophe away from Trump and back onto the Chinese,” he said. Morrison described attempts by Trump and his allies to undermine the WHO and its leadership in the middle of a pandemic as “dangerous and totally inappropriate.”
Others worry that this fight between the United States and China, with the world’s leading health organization in the middle, is a distraction. “Many of the things the Trump administration has done to highlight the threats that China poses is correct,” Asia-Pacific expert Bonnie Glaser, also at CSIS, told Politico. “At this particular moment in time, I think we should be prioritizing other issues."
The WHO, meanwhile, implicitly accused Trump of politicizing the virus and warned that doing so will lead to “many more body bags.”
One thing we know: When Trump finds someone to blame, such as governors, he doesn’t let up easily. So let’s delve more into why he’s attacking the WHO to have a better understanding for when this comes up again in the future.
Trump’s criticisms are twofold.
1. Trump said the WHO, which is under the United Nations, “seemed to be very China-centric.” That’s what a number of hawkish GOP senators are also saying. They accuse the WHO of simply reporting virus statistics given to them by the Chinese government, even though we now know China widely underreported and even tried to hide the extent of the virus. For example, in mid-January, the WHO repeated that China said human-to-human transmission of the virus hadn’t been proved. Leaders in Japan and Taiwan — both of which have geopolitical reasons for critiquing China — have also accused the WHO of giving China too much of the benefit of the doubt at the start of the outbreak. The New York Times reports that China is actively trying to grow its influence at the WHO.
On Tuesday, Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman James E. Risch (R-Idaho) accused the WHO of being a “political puppet” of China, saying the WHO’s failure to report the real number of cases “hindered the world’s ability to blunt the spread of this pandemic.
Morrison said all of that goes too far. At the beginning, in January, the WHO did praise China for its work in containing the virus — which we now know the nation didn’t do. But so did Trump. Even as his advisers urged him to be more skeptical that China had the virus under control, Trump was praising Chinese President Xi Jinping for doing just that. Trump had just signed a trade deal with China, in the middle of his impeachment trial, and was probably wary of having that deal blow up.
2. Trump’s second gripe is that the WHO “called it wrong. They missed the call.” Trump didn’t elaborate on what he meant by that.
He might have been accusing the organization of not alerting the world soon enough about the coronavirus. If true, this could help him back home politically: How could he have moved sooner if world health leaders were slow, too? The WHO waited weeks to declare a public health emergency and only declared it a pandemic March 11, later than many countries would have preferred.
But the White House wasn’t clamoring for the world to take the virus more seriously. The same day the WHO declared a global pandemic, Trump was saying: “I think we’re going to get through it very well.” That’s despite warnings coming from his own trade adviser and health secretary and the CIA as far back as January.
He later said he knew how bad the virus could get but that he didn’t want to “shock” Americans.
And early on, when the WHO wasn’t as harsh on China as it perhaps should have been, it was not getting support from the United States to do anything differently. Morrison said it’s important to remember that the WHO is an organization made up of its member states. To forcefully take on one of those members (in this case, China), it needs the backing of the others.
No major world leaders at the time — not the United States, not leaders in Britain and France — were telling the WHO to go after China and assuring it that they would have its leaders’ backs, Morrison said. “So the idea [the WHO] is supposed to launch off on some sort of suicidal confrontation with China just doesn’t happen,” he said.
In addition, he said, without that support, the WHO has since been critical of China and pushed hard to get a team of scientists to the outbreak center in mid-February.
Trump’s emerging playbook on the WHO loosely follows what he did with Hillary Clinton’s emails and tried to do with Joe Biden’s diplomacy in Ukraine: take a perceived misstep by his opponents and blow it up to try to discredit them — and benefit him.