If there is one thing Donald Trump likes more than patting himself on the back, it’s a convenient scapegoat to shift the public narrative. In what has become a daily ritual, Trump held a coronavirus news conference in the White House Rose Garden yesterday to announce a suspension of U.S. funding to the World Health Organisation. The reason for Trump’s decision: the WHO’s supposed lack of independence from China, which the president cited as a key factor in the global spread of Covid-19.
'The WHO failed in this basic duty and must be held accountable,' Trump said. In the president’s mind and in the minds of many Republicans in Washington, the agency failed while tens of thousands of people, young and old alike, lay gasping for breath in hospital beds. The funding cut is going to hit the WHO hard; in the last two-year budget cycle, the U.S. pledged nearly £717m ($900m) to the agency, roughly a fifth of its total budget.
As one might expect, Trump’s move to starve the WHO of money has not gone down well. German foreign minister Heiko Maas took to Trump’s favourite social media forum to say that casting aspersions won’t help the situation. EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell condemned the decision, writing that 'there is no reason justifying this move at a moment when their efforts are needed more than ever to help contain & mitigate the #coronavirus pandemic.' U.N. Secretary General Antonio Guterres issued a statement of his own, where he reminded the world’s governments that international cooperation is the only way to snuff out the virus for good. Democrats on Capitol Hill lashed out as soon as Trump made the announcement, categorising it as a one big, fat, diversion from the main source of the problem: Donald Trump himself.
The president, of course, would take strong issue with the notion that he or his administration is to blame for a health disaster that has killed over 26,000 Americans and made an additional 609,000 ill. Trump doesn’t take kindly to the slightest criticism on a good day, let alone during a period of time when America is experiencing its worst pandemic in over a century (in an election year, no less).
Trump isn’t stupid. His planet-sized ego prevents him from standing up at the White House podium, admitting he made mistakes during the crisis (the list of errors has been well cataloged at this point), and taking responsibility for them. If there are commentators out there expecting Trump to do a mea culpa on national television, then they have been living under a rock for the last four years.
Even so, Trump understands the gravity of the situation and the fact that the American public is legitimately angry about the crisis – not only in terms of the number of people who have died but also to the economic ramifications associated with the federal government’s incompetence. He also recognises that presiding over the most dismal economic contraction since the 2008 recession (nearly 17 million Americans filed for unemployment in a three-week period) is an albatross around his neck that could eventually drown him in November. Trump is desperate to change the conversation away from himself and towards other entities, be they Democrats, Barack Obama, governors, the Chinese, or the WHO. The fact that Americans will go to the polls in seven months only makes Trump’s desperation more urgent than usual.
There is no question the WHO messed up early on. The agency relied on China for data about the virus and repeatedly thanked Beijing in public for being open and transparent when the reality was exactly the opposite. WHO officials went out of their way to praise China’s response. In the ensuing months, we have since come to learn that Beijing was not only failing to disclose information to the world, but seemed intent on covering up its mistakes.
Those not encased in Trump’s political base realise what’s going on here: the president, who has taken a beating from the press over the last three weeks, is frantically throwing spaghetti at the wall to see what sticks. His finger pointing at governors like New York's Andrew Cuomo and Michigan's Gretchen Whitmer fell flat. His complaints about inheriting a broken public health system are ridiculous given that we are now in the fourth year of Trump’s presidency. His criticisms of the Chinese only go so far given the public record. So now it’s the WHO’s turn in the barrel.
The Europeans, Russians, Democrats in Washington, and U.N. officials aren’t buying what Trump is selling. The verdict is still out on the Americans in the suburbs.