Trump sends hate mail to WHO, threatens to make funding pull permanent

Foreign Affairs
World Health Organization (WHO / OMS) Headquarters Building - Geneva, Switzerland
Geneva, Switzerland - World Health Organization Headquarters

Late last night, Donald Trump tweeted out a four-page letter addressed to World Health Organization head Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus. “It is self-explanatory!,” Trump added.

Indeed, his letter is not surprising, or difficult to understand: As is characteristic of Trump, it is an error-riddled litany of grievances, culminating in a vague demand that everything that is wrong must be fixed, or else he will take the nuclear option — in this case, permanently pulling funding for WHO.

  • The errors start from the first bullet point, which claims that WHO “consistently ignored credible reports of the virus spreading in Wuhan in early December 2019 or even earlier, including reports from the Lancet medical journal.”
  • The Lancet medical journal corrected Trump, issuing a statement that clarified, “The Lancet published no report in December, 2019, referring to a virus or outbreak in Wuhan or anywhere else in China.” The first published paper in the journal about the outbreak was actually published on January 24.
  • The letter goes on to refer to unspecified — and to our knowledge, nonexistent — reports “between December 26 and December 30” in Chinese media that “highlighted evidence of a new virus.” For example, Lǐ Wénliàng 李文亮 raised alarm about a SARS-like virus only on December 30.
  • The letter also states as fact that “Taiwanese authorities…communicated information to the [WHO] indicating human-to-human transmission of a new virus,” which is not clear, and seems to imply that WHO had some obligation to speak out against racial discrimination against Africans in Guangzhou.
  • Trump also raised real, valid complaints about WHO, such as pointing out its now-infamous January 14 message that there is “no clear evidence of human-to-human transmission” of the virus.

Trump’s letter ends by making no suggestions for how WHO should improve, but instead leaves with an ultimatum: “If the World Health Organization does not commit to major substantive improvements within the next 30 days, I will make my temporary freeze of United States funding to the World Health Organization permanent and reconsider our membership in the organization.”

Evan Feigenbaum of the Carnegie Endowment provides a reality check:

Folks, if you really think that letter to Tedros had anything to do with a deep desire to “reform global institutions,” then you haven’t been paying sufficient attention for the last three years…

(1) he’s a grievance politician; (2) there are in fact real grievances against both the WHO and China; (3) he’s shown no interest in multilateral institutions; (4) U.S. frustration with UN bodies is palpable; (5) existential debates about “global governance” aren’t his thing.