Trump’s World Health Organization funding cutoff: It’s complicated

Democrats say the White House doesn’t have legal standing to halt funding to the UN organization; Trump officials say the law provides wiggle room.

The Pan American Health Organization/World Health Organization building in downtown Washington. (Caroline Brehman/CQ Roll Call file photoCall)
The Pan American Health Organization/World Health Organization building in downtown Washington. (Caroline Brehman/CQ Roll Call file photoCall)
Posted April 15, 2020 at 6:46pm

Democrats promised to challenge President Donald Trump’s decision to withhold funding for the World Health Organization, opening a new partisan battle over how to respond to the coronavirus pandemic.

A senior Democratic aide likened Trump’s action to his temporary freezing of military aid for Ukraine last year, which the Government Accountability Office, a legislative agency, said was illegal.

“The President’s halting of funding to the WHO as it leads the global fight against the coronavirus pandemic is senseless,” Speaker Nancy Pelosi said in a statement Wednesday. “This decision is dangerous, illegal and will be swiftly challenged.”

Democrats will be “reviewing all of our options,” including seeking a legal opinion from the GAO, according to the senior aide, who spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss strategy.

‘So much death’

Trump on Tuesday called for a halt on roughly $400 million or more in annual U.S. aid to the World Health Organization, a United Nations agency created after World War II to help provide medical assistance around the globe. He accused the WHO of mismanaging the COVID-19 pandemic by not pressing China hard enough for all the information it had.

“So much death has been caused by their mistakes,” Trump said at a Rose Garden news conference. “We will continue to engage with the WHO to see if it can make meaningful reforms. For the time being, we will redirect global health and directly work with others.”

Congressional leverage over the funding may be limited because money for the WHO was never specifically appropriated in legislation. Instead, the fiscal 2020 State-Foreign Operations spending measure enacted in December provided $1.47 billion for annual U.S. membership in “international multilateral organizations,” which would typically include the WHO.

The White House believes the legislative language underlying the appropriation is broad enough to permit the WHO funds to be allocated to other organizations, a senior administration official said.

The U.S. is the biggest single donor to the WHO, which has an annual budget of about $6 billion, according to its website. Most countries pay both an “assessment,” or mandatory dues, plus a voluntary contribution that makes up the bulk of the payments.

The Trump administration already released a first tranche of some $58 million in assessed funds to the WHO. It owes a second tranche, or balance, of $65 million out of the WHO’s $122.7 million fiscal 2020 assessment on the U.S.

A senior administration official said the second tranche would normally get paid in September. That funding is now being withheld for 60 days, as well as potential additional voluntary contributions that could be made to WHO.

Based on past contributions, there is a range of $300 million to $400 million that could be given to the WHO for projects on top of the assessment this year, the official said.

The administration official, who wasn’t authorized to speak publicly, said the $65 million would likely be reprogrammed for another purpose and would be spent before the fiscal year ends Sept. 30. The aide also said a policy review is being conducted and agencies are looking at other uses for the money.

Remember Ukraine?

In considering seeking a legal opinion from the GAO, Democrats are attempting to draw a direct parallel to the freezing of nearly $400 million in military aid to Ukraine last summer — a move that led to Trump’s impeachment.

In its opinion on the Ukraine matter, the GAO said most of the frozen funds amounted to an illegal deferral that violated the Impoundment Control Act, which allows the president in some cases to withhold spending. It said the Ukraine money was withheld for a “policy reason,” which is not permitted by the act.

But the opinion, which the White House disputed, triggered no sanction or penalty. The money was eventually released and the Republican-controlled Senate acquitted Trump after an abbreviated trial with no witness testimony.

“In a desperate attempt to deflect blame, President Trump is violating the same spending laws that brought about his impeachment,” said Evan Hollander, spokesman for the Democratic-controlled House Appropriations Committee. “The President does not have the unilateral authority to withhold the United States’ assessed contribution to the World Health Organization.”

Unlike the Ukraine imbroglio, the Office of Management and Budget is not using its “apportionment” powers to suspend the money, nor is the White House seeking to rescind or defer the funds, the administration official said.

The White House budget office typically uses apportionment to spread out spending throughout the year, but the procedure can also be used to temporarily delay spending. In this case, the administration is seeking to potentially spend the money on something else within existing law, not put the money on ice completely.

While opinions about Trump's action vary, Brett Schaefer, a senior research fellow specializing in U.N. funding mechanisms at the conservative Heritage Foundation, said Trump’s funding freeze would wind up being counter-productive by playing into China’s propaganda aims.

“The U.S. has taken pains to counter Chinese disinformation and focus the world on the fact that Chinese actions and inactions facilitated the spread of COVID-19 and impeded the international response,” he said in a statement. “Those efforts will be immediately overshadowed by an announcement that the U.S. is cutting funding to the WHO even as other nations, both developed and developing, are expressing anger toward China for its role in the COVID-19 pandemic.”

In February, WHO said it needed to raise $675 million to implement through April its COVID-19 preparedness plan. The funds were to be used for improving international coordination, providing technical support to member countries’ response efforts and accelerating relevant research into the disease. As of a week ago, $356 million of that amount had been donated to WHO.

The freezing of U.S. funding triggered a partisan clash that could complicate negotiations on the next round of coronavirus relief.

Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, chairman of the Senate State-Foreign Operations Appropriations Subcommittee, defended the president’s decision. “This is a critical time for worldwide public health and we cannot afford China apologists running the WHO,” he said in a statement. “I support a suspension of funding by the United States until there is new leadership at the WHO.”

But Sen. Patrick J. Leahy of Vermont, the ranking Democrat on the Senate Appropriations Committee, lambasted the funding freeze. “Withholding funds for WHO in the midst of the worst pandemic in a century makes as much sense as cutting off ammunition to an ally as the enemy closes in,” he said.

Rachel Oswald contributed to this report.