After having warned the organization less than two weeks prior that he would cut funding unless they took steps to show independence from China, President Donald Trump announced Friday that the U.S. will formally end its relationship with the World Health Organization (WHO).
“The world is now suffering as a result of the malfeasance of the Chinese government,” said Trump in a speech in the Rose Garden. “Countless lives have been taken, and profound economic hardship has been inflicted all around the globe.”
During his 10-minute address, Trump stated that after failing to report the outbreak of the Wuhan coronavirus (COVID-19) to the WHO, Chinese officials had pressured the organization “to mislead the world when the virus was first discovered by Chinese authorities.”
Trump points out WHO’s bias towards China
The president had previously outlined a number of questionable steps taken by the organization in relation to the pandemic in a letter to WHO head Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus on May 18. Early on, the WHO had criticized the U.S.’s early banning of travel from China. In addition, it had also echoed Beijing’s claim that there was no evidence of human-to-human transmission of the coronavirus.
“The world needs answers from China on the virus,” Trump said Friday. “We must have transparency.”
Alongside the U.S.’s withdrawal from the WHO, Trump also announced several actions aimed at China. He said that he would issue an order that would prohibit the entry of certain Chinese nationals and that he would also sign a proclamation that would defend research done by American universities.
In addition, Trump also directed officials to take a closer look at the practices of Chinese companies listed on U.S. stock exchanges with the goal of protecting American investors.
According to a WHO spokeswoman in Geneva, the organization would not have a response until Saturday.
In April, WHO head Tedros responded to Trump’s accusations that the organization was “China-centric.”
“It is wrong to be any ‘country-centric.’ I am sure we are not China-centric,” Tedros said. “The truth is, if we are going to be blamed, it is right to blame us for being U.S.-centric.”
Despite these claims, however, some of the organization’s actions, especially in relation to Taiwan, do seem to demonstrate deference to Beijing. (Related: World Health Organization (WHO) forced to release statement after awkward Taiwan interview.)
Can the U.S. actually leave the WHO?
Despite Trump’s announcement, it remains unclear whether or not he can simply withdraw the U.S. from the WHO without the approval of Congress.
“The president can’t unilaterally withdraw us,” said Lawrence O. Gostin, director of Georgetown University’s O’Neill Institute.
“It’s a nonstarter. This is literally a whim of one man, without any consultation with Congress, in the middle of the greatest health emergency of our lifetime,” he added.
The Constitution’s Treaty Clause gives the president the right to withdraw the country from any treaties he wants to. However, America’s entry into the WHO came via a joint resolution, not a treaty.
Adding to this is the fact that both the joint resolution that facilitated America’s entry and the WHO charter itself does not have any exit provisions. For the most part, countries are trying to join the organization, not leave it, with one such example being Taiwan, who’s involvement the Trump administration had argued for.
However, the joint resolution did state that any such exit would require that the U.S. provide a one-year notice and that any financial obligations that it had to the WHO be satisfied prior to withdrawal. On top of its voluntary contributions, the U.S. still owes the WHO close to $60 million for the current year, on top of an outstanding balance from previous years.
Some members of the House of Representatives have criticized Trump’s announcement, which may make any efforts to get approval difficult.
“The WHO is the world’s early warning system for infectious diseases,” said Rep. Nita Lowey, chair of the House Committee on Appropriations. “Now, during a global pandemic that has cost over 100,000 American lives, is not the time to put the country further at risk.”
Regardless of whether or not the U.S. can leave the organization, Trump can still terminate U.S. funding to the WHO. The U.S. is currently the largest funder of the WHO, providing 10-times as much funding as China does.
According to Trump, the U.S. will instead be “redirecting those funds to other worldwide and deserving urgent global public health needs.”