An Abuse of Presidential Authority and American Power: Halting U.S. Funding for the World Health Organization

On Tuesday, President Donald J. Trump announced that he had ordered his administration to halt U.S. funding for the World Health Organization (WHO) pending a review of the organization’s actions during the COVID-19 pandemic. The president’s order threatens to damage WHO’s ability to contribute to life-saving national and international efforts needed to counter one of the worst pandemics to hit the world in a century. The consequences of this action are so potentially severe that the grounds for taking this path should be proven malfeasance on the part of WHO so egregious that cutting off funds is the only just and effective remedy. The justifications provided by the president come nowhere close to meeting this standard.

Let’s dissect the president’s stated rationales.

The president gave two reasons for ordering a halt to U.S. funding. First, he accused WHO of “severely mismanaging and covering up the spread of the coronavirus” by taking “China’s assurances at face value” and pushing “Chinese misinformation” about the COVID-19 outbreak in China. The president claimed that these mistakes by WHO have caused “so much death.” Second, the president argued that WHO “fought” the United States over travel restrictions that the U.S. government implemented against China because the U.S. measures did not conform with WHO’s recommendations.

Justification 1: Failure to provide urgent information

The president’s own claims for how he has handled the pandemic and information that we now know the U.S. government gathered about the outbreak undermine the credibility of his accusations that WHO misconduct produced “so much death” in the United States. The president claims that he effectively protected U.S. citizens from the coronavirus threat by implementing travel restrictions on China against WHO’s recommendations. If the president is correct, then Chinese misinformation or WHO’s mismanagement of its interactions with China did not mislead the U.S. government. The information that the U.S. intelligence community collected about developments in China in late 2019 and January 2020 and shared across the administration and with members of Congress further underscores that the U.S. government did not depend on, and was not misled by, WHO’s interactions with China.

In light of what we know, the question we should ask is what the United States did for WHO and other countries when the US administration suspected that China was covering up a dangerous outbreak. Given that the U.S. government had information about the outbreak that did not align with what China was claiming and what WHO was providing, what steps did the United States take to bring that information to WHO’s attention?

The United States is a party to the International Health Regulations (IHR), an international agreement that the U.S. government significantly shaped and has strongly supported since its adoption in 2005. The IHR permits WHO to receive and assess information about disease events within countries from sources other than the governments of the affected countries and to seek verification of such information from those governments. The IHR also require states parties to inform WHO of evidence they have about public health risks outside their respective territories that may spread disease internationally through, among other things, human movement.

Under the IHR, the United States had the opportunity and the obligation to share information with WHO about the disease event that the U.S. government knew was metastasizing in China. Did the Trump administration share information that the U.S. government had about the outbreak in China with WHO? Did it share such information with other countries that faced the same threat as the United States? The president claims that WHO failed the United States and the world by not providing accurate information about the situation in China. But, if the U.S. government did not provide WHO or other governments with information it had about a dangerous disease event in China, then did President Trump also fail to do what he could to protect global health? These questions deserve answers, especially in light of the president’s move to punish WHO for not adequately warning the world before the Wuhan outbreak became a devastating pandemic.

The United States had the opportunity and the obligation to share information with WHO about the disease event that the U.S. government knew was metastasizing in China.

Justification 2: Disagreement on the U.S. travel restrictions

The president’s second justification for halting funding is that WHO did not agree with the restrictions that the U.S. government implemented on travel from China on February 2. This reason provides no basis for damaging WHO and jeopardizing its ability to help countries combat the COVID-19 pandemic. First, according to the president, the travel restrictions worked, saved lives, and protected the American people. Thus, under this perspective, nothing that WHO said or did concerning the U.S. travel restrictions harmed the health and well-being of Americans. In this context, cutting off funding is a vindictive exercise of presidential authority against WHO actions that had, according to the president, no adverse effect in the United States.

Second, the U.S. government has never required in policy or law that WHO agree with actions that the United States takes in global health. In connection with serious disease events, the U.S.-backed IHR acknowledges that states parties and WHO might differ on how to respond to outbreaks. The regulations require the WHO director-general to issue temporary recommendations, which are not legally binding, to guide WHO member states after the director-general declares a public health emergency of international concern. These temporary recommendations usually include WHO’s standard advice that travel and trade restrictions are not effective measures in responding to public health emergencies.

States parties do not have to follow the temporary recommendations, but the IHR requires states parties to provide WHO with the scientific and public health justifications for trade or travel measures that do not conform with such recommendations. WHO must assess the information provided and may, based on that assessment, ask a state party to reconsider the application of the trade or travel measures. A state party is under no legal obligation to change its approach if the WHO asks it to reconsider its measures.

The temporary recommendations issued on January 30 and updated on February 29 included WHO’s advice against the application of travel or trade restrictions to countries experiencing COVID-19 outbreaks. In issuing this advice, WHO was fulfilling its obligations under the IHR, an international agreement that the United States willingly joined and has long supported. Issuing temporary recommendations does not involve picking a fight with the United States or with any of the many other countries that implemented travel restrictions in response to COVID-19. Nor did the president cite any evidence that WHO ever singled out the United States by asking it to reconsider its COVID-19 travel restrictions, as the IHR allows the organization to do. Finally, under the IHR, a state party retains its sovereign prerogative to retain the travel restrictions that it has implemented. In essence, the president is punishing WHO for doing what IHR states parties, including the United States, required the organization to do in a context in which U.S. sovereignty is not diminished and U.S. national interests are not threatened. In this light, cutting off funding for WHO is an abuse of American power.

This controversy now shifts to the review the president has ordered that will determine whether the United States resumes funding for WHO or moves to reduce or eliminate its support for the organization. Given this administration’s unwillingness to admit mistakes, this review is unlikely to conclude that the president’s accusations against WHO were wrong. This probable outcome means that the opportunity and, yes, the need for a comprehensive and transparent review of WHO’s interactions with China and the United States during this pandemic will be, without justification, also lost.

WASHINGTON, DC – APRIL 14: U.S. President Donald Trump speaks during the daily briefing of the White House Coronavirus Task Force in the Rose Garden at the White House April 14, 2020 in Washington, DC. President Trump announced that he is halting funding for World Health Organization WHO. (Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images)


About the Author(s)

David Fidler

Adjunct Senior Fellow for Cybersecurity and Global Health at the Council on Foreign Relations; Visiting Professor of Law at Washington University in St. Louis. Follow him on Twitter (@D_P_Fidler).