By Steve Holland
WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The United States could redirect to other aid groups some $400 million it would have paid the World Health Organization this year, senior Trump administration officials said on Wednesday after President Donald Trump halted funding for the U.N. agency over its handling of the coronavirus pandemic.
Washington has already paid the Geneva-based WHO some $58 million this year, the officials said, half of what it is required to pay for 2020 – known as an assessed contribution.
“We’re stopping that second tranche,” said a senior Trump administration official. “We can very easily give this money to the Red Cross” or other similar organizations.
The United States also provides several hundred million dollars to the WHO every year in voluntary funding tied to specific programs like polio eradication, vaccine-preventable disease, HIV and hepatitis, tuberculosis, and maternal, newborn, child and adolescent health.
It was not immediately clear how much voluntary funding the United States had already provided for WHO programs in 2020.
“We can find another partner that is not the WHO. That money will be spent with other partners,” a second senior Trump administration official said.
Trump announced on Tuesday that U.S. funding would be halted while Washington reviewed the WHO’s role “in severely mismanaging and covering up the spread of the coronavirus,” which he said was likely to take 60 to 90 days.
The move prompted widespread condemnation as reported global coronavirus infections passed the 2 million mark. The head of the WHO, Director General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, said he regretted Trump’s decision, and said now is the time for the world to be united in the fight against the virus.
Trump on Tuesday accused the WHO of promoting China’s “disinformation” about the virus, saying it likely led to a wider outbreak than otherwise would have occurred.
Trump’s decision came amid criticism of his administration’s response to the worst epidemic in a century, from some of his fellow Republicans as well as Democrats. Just this week, some Republican governors pushed back on Trump’s assertion that he had “total authority” to order states to reopen businesses that have been closed to stop the virus’ spread.
The senior administration officials said the U.S. Congress was unable to stop them from redirecting WHO funding elsewhere.
Some Democrats disagreed, promising they would try to include funding for the WHO in the next coronavirus relief bill.
“This decision is dangerous, illegal and will be swiftly challenged,” Democratic House of Representatives Speaker Nancy Pelosi said.
Republicans in Congress, who rarely break from White House policy, quickly backed Trump’s decision.
Senator Lindsey Graham, a vocal Trump supporter who heads the Senate subcommittee that oversees foreign aid, called the WHO “incompetent” and demanded new leadership. “This is a critical time for worldwide public health and we cannot afford China apologists running the WHO,” Graham said.
Two sources who track U.S. funding to international organizations said Trump’s action was serious. “This is not an idle threat. There are actual implications to this,” one said.
The sources said the U.S. Agency for International Development had been due to make a voluntary payment last week of $43 million to the WHO for polio surveillance and it was now blocked.
The WHO is a U.N. specialized agency – an independent international body that works with the United Nations. U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres said on Tuesday it was “not the time” to reduce resources for the body.
(Reporting by Steve Holland; Additional reporting by Arshad Mohammed and Patricia Zengerle; Writing by Michelle Nichols and Patricia Zengerle; Editing by Mary Milliken, Jonathan Oatis and Leslie Adler)