Trump Vows Openings By May, Blames WHO For Pandemic

By Andrew Kragie
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Law360 (April 14, 2020, 11:39 PM EDT) -- President Donald Trump on Tuesday announced he would halt funding for the World Health Organization over its handling of the coronavirus and said that much of the United States would reopen before May 1, contradicting the government's top infectious disease doctor.

The president's comments at a White House briefing came on the day the pandemic's U.S. death toll reached 25,000 and the cumulative count of confirmed cases exceeded 600,000, according to Johns Hopkins University statistics. However, the daily count of new cases appeared to continue its decline from an April 10 national peak of more than 35,000 diagnoses in one day.

Trump Promises April Openings, Contradicting Top Doctor

The president suggested that much of the country can begin the return to normalcy this month.

"The governors are going to be opening up their states," Trump said. "Some can open very, very shortly, if not almost immediately. We'll give a date, but the date's going to be in the very near future. ... Frankly, it will be at a time that will be earlier than the deadline that we imposed, the end of April. So we think some of the governors will be in really good shape to open up even sooner than that."

"The day will be very close because certain states, as you know, are in a much different condition, much different place than other states," he said. "It's going to be very, very close, maybe even before the date of May 1."

Trump said about 20 states "are in extremely good shape" and said that 15% of U.S. counties have not recorded any coronavirus cases. However, many areas could have undercounts due to limited testing, and while University of Washington researchers estimate that the national peak of hospital usage came last Friday, individual states face their own distinct trajectories.

Although Trump seemed to back off his assertion Monday of "total" authority in a public health crisis — saying "I'm not going to put any pressure on any governor to open" — he also said that "the governors will be held accountable" and that "if the governors don't do a good job, we will come down on them very hard."

The president placed the onus for public health services on the states: "The governors are supposed to do testing. It's up to the governors," he said. "If they're not satisfied with their testing, they shouldn't open."

That marked a shift from plans last month for nationwide testing networks operated in a private-partnership. When Trump declared a national emergency on March 13, he said Google was setting up a national website to direct patients to testing centers in parking lots of retailers including Walmart, Target, CVS and Walgreens. The website by a Google affiliate, Verily, only operates in certain parts of California. An NPR investigation found that, as of Monday, the four national chains had a combined total of eight testing sites.

Trump's comments at the White House briefing came hours after the government's top infectious disease expert, Dr. Anthony Fauci, told The Associated Press that April was too soon to implement a reopening plan without broader testing, an antibody test, a vaccine or procedures for contact tracing.

"We have to have something in place that is efficient and that we can rely on, and we're not there yet," Fauci said. He called a May 1 target date "a bit overly optimistic" and warned of a second wave of infections.

Fauci and other experts such as Dr. Deborah Birx, the White House task force coordinator, did not speak at Tuesday's briefing, which lasted nearly 90 minutes. The president spent about 10 minutes reading the list of nearly 200 CEOs and other leaders named to "Great American Economic Revival Industry Groups" that the White House said will "chart the path forward toward a future of unparalleled American prosperity."

Trump Blames WHO, Announces Funding Cut

The president sought to assign blame to the World Health Organization for allegedly failing to investigate the early Chinese response, claiming the organization could have stopped the virus from leaving the city where it first emerged.

"I am instructing my administration to halt funding of the World Health Organization while a review is conducted to assess the World Health Organization's role in severely mismanaging and covering up the spread of the coronavirus. Everybody knows what's going on there," Trump said.

He pointed out that the United States provides far more funding than any other country, contrasting its annual contribution of $400 million to $500 million to the $40 million from China, whose gross domestic product is only a third smaller than that of the United States. The WHO is an agency of the United Nations, one of the multilateral organizations Trump has long viewed as unnecessary expenses that disproportionately rely on U.S. funding.

"Had the WHO done its job to get medical experts into China to objectively assess the situation on the ground and to call out China's lack of transparency, the outbreak could have been contained at its source with very little death," he said. "The WHO failed to investigate credible reports from sources in Wuhan that conflicted directly with the Chinese government's official accounts."

When a reporter asked Trump about his praise for China early in the crisis, he denied that he had praised their transparency, despite his Jan. 24 tweet that "China has been working very hard to contain the Coronavirus. The United States greatly appreciates their efforts and transparency. It will all work out well."

During the briefing, Trump emphasized that he did not blame China for its actions, but rather the WHO for not investigating China's actions.

"We got a little bit waylaid by the virus, but look, I would love to have a good relationship with China," he said.

Trump also blamed the WHO for discouraging travel restrictions, which public health experts say may delay but are unlikely to contain the spread of a disease.

"Fortunately, I was not convinced, and suspended travel from China, saving untold numbers of lives. Thousands and thousands of people would have died," he asserted, hours after the U.S. death toll exceeded 25,000. "Border control is fundamental to virus control."

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., blasted Trump for casting blame.

"A weak person, a poor leader, takes no responsibility," she said in a letter. "A weak person blames others."

Pelosi's deputy — Majority Leader Steny Hoyer, D-Md. — urged the president to maintain WHO funding.

"Surely, structural changes are needed at the World Health Organization to prevent it from being exploited by China and other countries for misinformation, but the way to do that is through engagement based on American leadership," Hoyer said in a statement.

The top Democrat on the Senate committee that decides funding for international organizations, Sen. Patrick Leahy of Vermont, said in a statement that "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."

While Democrats have been skeptical of WHO criticism and some have pressed for a commission to investigate the Trump administration's early response, Republicans have shared Trump's concerns. Homeland Security Committee Chairman Sen. Ron Johnson, R-Wis., announced a probe of the organization earlier Tuesday and demanded internal communications related to the coronavirus.

The Republican in charge of the committee that sets funding for international organizations, Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, backed the cutoff.

"The current WHO leadership has proven to be incompetent and shown overwhelming evidence of China bias. Cutting off funding to the WHO at this time is the right move," Graham tweeted on Wednesday. "If someone like Bill Gates were in charge of the WHO I would gladly support increased funding, but I have lost all confidence in the current WHO leadership and capabilities."

The U.S. Chamber of Commerce broke with the GOP in a statement Wednesday that, while changes may be needed, "cutting the WHO's funding during the COVID-19 pandemic is not in U.S. interests" because the organization supports the pandemic response in other countries, whose outbreaks could affect the United States.

—Editing by Michael Watanabe.

Update: This article has been updated with comments from Graham and the Chamber of Commerce.

For a reprint of this article, please contact reprints@law360.com.

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