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President Trump Announces That U.S. Will Leave WHO


This afternoon, President Trump said he is severing U.S. ties with the World Health Organization over the U.N. agency's handling of the coronavirus pandemic.


PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: We will be today terminating our relationship with the World Health Organization and redirecting those funds to other worldwide and deserving urgent global public health needs.

KELLY: The president did not take questions during the roughly 10-minute long Rose Garden address, which focused on China. NPR's global health correspondent Jason Beaubien was listening in. He joins us now. Hi, Jason.


KELLY: President Trump has been threatening for months now to pull the U.S. out. What exactly did he say today about his reasons?

BEAUBIEN: His primary complaint is that he says China has been covering up this outbreak and that that allowed it to spread all over the world. He says the WHO went along with these Chinese efforts to mislead the world. And he says China has total control over the World Health Organization. The speech blames China for the pandemic and accused the WHO of being China's accomplice in that.

KELLY: And do we know why now? Was there something he referred to that he says forced his hand to announce this today?

BEAUBIEN: You know, that's really unclear. On May 19, he gave the WHO 30 days to reform. He said he was going to cut off funding to them entirely. That was in the middle of the World Health Organization's main annual meeting. Well, now it's only been 10 days. It was never clear exactly what the reforms were that he was asking for. The WHO has even expressed that they aren't clear on what are the reforms that he's looking for from them.

KELLY: One thing has been on my mind is, does the president actually have the authority to unilaterally decide I am terminating this relationship with the World Health Organization?

BEAUBIEN: That also isn't entirely clear. You know, he has pulled out of several other U.N. agencies. He pulled out of UNESCO, the cultural arm of the U.N., in 2017. He pulled out of UNHCR, the U.N. Human Rights Council, in 2018. The WHO is somewhat different. It's a member organization. It's sort of like the U.N. itself. Congress authorized the U.S. to join the World Health Organization back in 1946 after World War II.

In the WHO's charter, it actually doesn't have an exit clause. Most governments are trying to get in, rather than get out. Taiwan, for instance, has been lobbying very hard. And that has been something that the Trump administration has really argued for is Taiwan's involvement in the WHO. But Trump, however, certainly can terminate the U.S. funding to the WHO. The U.S. is the largest funder of the World Health Organization. He can tell scientists at the CDC to stop working with the agency. He can pull out of any trials that might be going on for vaccines or testing of pharmaceuticals to potentially treat COVID. Yes, he absolutely has the authority to do that.

KELLY: Just to step back for a second, I mentioned this was during a 10-minute event that was mostly focused on China. What more do we know about this disagreement with the World Health Organization? Is it coincidence that he made this announcement while he was talking about China?

BEAUBIEN: Yeah, it - I don't think it's a coincidence at all. The speech in the Rose Garden listed a lot of Trump's grievances with China. The World Trade Organization was one of them, Hong Kong, trade, the coronavirus. And regarding the COVID pandemic, he blames China.


TRUMP: Why is it that China shut off infected people from Wuhan to all other parts of China? It went nowhere else. It didn't go to Beijing. It went nowhere else. But they allowed them to freely travel throughout the world, including Europe and the United States.

BEAUBIEN: I have to point out that this is simply not true. China had cases that spread to every province and territory in China, including Beijing.

KELLY: Yeah. And fact-check another thing. Is there evidence that the WHO was working with China to cover up the severity of the outbreak?

BEAUBIEN: There really is no evidence of that. This seems to get at the Trump administration's misunderstanding of the WHO's role. They have no authority to go into another country and tell that country what to do or force them to disclose anything. The WHO simply reports what China or any other member station reports to them. And the WHO says they have raised the alarm early and often about this pandemic.

KELLY: Thank you for the reporting and the fact-checking. NPR's global health correspondent Jason Beaubien.

BEAUBIEN: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Jason Beaubien is NPR's Global Health and Development Correspondent on the Science Desk.