What a difference a few weeks can make.
At the end of March, Kelly Craft, President Trump’s top ambassador at the United Nations, insisted that midbattle against a dread disease sweeping the globe was no time for an international blame game.
Just two weeks later, there she was, jumping on Trump’s blame-game bandwagon.
What changed? She must have been given new marching orders from the president himself or from Secretary of State Mike Pompeo.
Here’s the background: Trump, in a spectacularly ill-timed move, announced on April 14, in the midst of our current global plague, that he was suspending all federal funding for the World Health Organization.
He was doing so, he said, for 60 to 90 days while the United States reviewed the agency’s handling of the Covid-19 pandemic and its seeming “China-centric” bias.
Trump accused the agency of “severely mismanaging and covering up the spread of the coronavirus.” The agency had unquestionably relied on China for information and it had made a “disastrous decision,” he said, to question the need for travel restrictions from China and other countries at an early stage in the outbreak.
US officials have been endlessly attacking the WHO these days over its acceptance of Chinese officials’ initial assurances that the virus posed a low risk of human-to-human transmission. They were also angry over the agency’s criticism of travel limits in January, after Trump imposed restrictions on travel from China.
But while the WHO did call such limits “ineffective in most situations,” it said they could be helpful because they could buy countries time to take “effective preparedness measures” before the virus landed on their shores.
The WHO soon afterward declared the coronavirus a global health emergency in late January, when Trump was still downplaying the disease and misleadingly comparing it to the flu and calling it a “hoax.” Now, critics are portraying his more recent attacks on the WHO and China as an attempt to divert attention from his own inadequate, chaotic response to the pandemic, a suggestion that of course enrages the narcissistic Trump.
In fact, Trump himself was full of praise for China and its handling of the pandemic in the early days. Politico has published a compilation of fawning presidential praise for China and its president, Xi Jinping, delivered in January and February.
For example, Trump tweeted on Feb. 7: “Just had a long and very good conversation by phone with President Xi of China. He is strong, sharp and powerfully focused on leading the counterattack on the Coronavirus. He feels they are doing very well, even building hospitals in a matter of only days. . . . Great discipline is taking place in China, as President Xi strongly leads what will be a very successful operation. We are working closely with China to help!”
Now let’s look at March 29, when Craft observed in an interview with Fox News that a pitched battle against a deadly disease was “not the time to have a blame game.” Her statement came as Trump and Pompeo were pushing to rebrand the Covid-19 virus as the “Wuhan virus” or the “Chinese virus.”
Pompeo had on March 25 blocked an effort by the G-7 countries to issue a joint statement declaring the need for a transparent global fight to defeat the pandemic after the group’s members, Britain, Canada, France, Germany, Italy and Japan, refused to include a reference to Covid-19 as “the Wuhan virus.”
Around the same time, Washington was blocking the 15-nation UN Security Council from meeting on an international plan to counter the pandemic and produce a resolution. Again, the administration was insisting that Wuhan, China, be identified as the virus’s birthplace.
But Craft, at that time, would have none of this.
“We as a nation have come together and we understand the importance of bringing everyone into the fold because the US cannot do this alone,” she told Fox News. “This virus has no borders, it sees no boundaries.”
“I think that we need to learn from the mistakes that China made, we need to be more transparent, and more thoughtful with following through with information. We also need to learn what China has done that has worked, and build upon that,” she said then.
Yet two weeks later, in an April 15 interview with National Public Radio aired the next morning, Craft was suddenly keen to assign blame. Trump had announced the suspension of WHO funding the day before.
“The WHO was not verifying information that they were receiving from the Chinese government,” she said. The information “was not accurate. Had it been accurate, had they managed the information they received early on, it would have obviously slowed the virus and it would have saved thousands of lives.”
“And I think that’s where we have a real issue with this is. It’s about the American lives, and it’s about the lives of those in the world,” she said. “And I’m telling you that if they do not turn this around, it is unforgivable.”
Asked about the wisdom of pulling funding from the international lead health agency in the middle of a life-or-death pandemic, Craft dodged the question. Asked whether she wasn’t accusing the WHO of precisely what his critics were accusing the president of, she again dodged the question. She also declined to say whether she thought there was a real danger of a permanent cutoff in US funding, but she made clear that she would carry out a decision to leave the WHO high and dry if that was what Trump wanted.
“I can’t answer about what we are going to uncover and I can’t answer to how the president and the secretary [of State] are going to respond,” she said. “I will take on their response. I will act upon their action, and I will advise and obviously keep the Secretary-General [António Guterres] and the Security Council fully advised of the reaction and the response that we receive from WHO.”
Will the WHO be able to carry out its duties without any US funding? It is difficult to say exactly how much money we are talking about here because of the vagaries of the US and UN budgeting mechanisms. The WHO’s budget, for example, covers two-year units, while the US budget is approved annually but is based on a so-called fiscal year beginning each Oct. 1 and ending every Sept. 30.
One thing is obvious, however: before the funding suspension, Washington had been by far the WHO’s single-biggest source of money. The US pays for nearly a fifth of the full WHO annual budget, which totals about $2.2 billion.
WHO gets two types of payments: assessed dues are provided by the agency’s 194 member states, while voluntary contributions come from a variety of organizations as well as governments.
The US government says it provided the WHO with $403.4 million during the latest full fiscal year, which ended on Sept. 30, 2019. About $119 million of that consisted of assessed dues, while the rest came in voluntary payments. The total included $176.8 channeled through the Agency for International Development; $107.2 million through the Department of State; and $93.1 million through the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
In recent years, the Trump administration has proposed deep cuts in numerous international aid budgets, including the WHO, but the US Congress has largely resisted these initiatives. For the fiscal year ending Sept. 30, 2020, Congress has authorized dues of $123 million, despite a pitch for a smaller payment from the Trump administration budget plan. For the next fiscal year, ending Sept. 30, 2021, Trump has proposed slashing the dues payment to just $58.9 million, a figure Congress has not yet addressed.
Not all the money is paid out at once. According to WHO budget tables as of March 31, WHO has so far billed Washington for $57.9 million of its dues for its current-year budget, but Washington has not paid any of that amount. For the previous year, 2019, Washington has so far paid $29.8 million, leaving additional arrears of $41.3 million. That puts Washington behind in dues payments by about $99 million, according to WHO figures.
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