The WHO Defunding Move Isn’t What It Seems

Donald Trump
Leah Mills / Reuters

President Donald Trump announced yesterday evening that he will withdraw funding for the World Health Organization, on the grounds that it helped China cover up the origin and extent of its coronavirus outbreak. The United States pays for the largest fraction (in recent years, about 17 percent) of the WHO’s budget. The WHO, in turn, funds the COVID-19 responses of dozens of countries around the planet, some of which are extremely vulnerable to the disease.

At about this point in the analysis, the expected move might be to explain why hobbling the WHO is unwise—how doing so will make us all less healthy and less safe; how it will be remembered as a moment when the U.S. chose to hasten its decline as a superpower; how funding the WHO gives the U.S. power over the group, and China will step in to seize the control the U.S. has ceded.

All these points are true—but only a sucker would focus on them. Defunding the WHO (or at least threatening to do so) is yet another instance of Trump’s signature move, one that I described just weeks ago, when he insisted on calling SARS-CoV-2 “the Chinese virus,” and for a few days journalists and social-media scolds obediently modified their criticisms to fit his latest outrage. The move is simple. When Trump is ensnared in controversy, when he is being asked straightforward, damning questions and his inquisitors do not stop asking them, he says or does something outrageous to change the subject. It works every time. It is working now.

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At some point, it is hard not to admire his ability to deploy this move, transparently, over and over, and have it serve its purpose. It is like watching Kareem Abdul-Jabbar’s skyhook, or Lionel Messi’s nimble dribbling; everyone has seen him do it hundreds and hundreds of times and has had ample time to practice a defense against it. But the execution is perfect, and as his opponents helplessly watch the points rack up, they should acknowledge that they are in the presence of rare talent.

The trick, as with the “Chinese virus,” is to choose a plausible enemy, one whose misdeeds are not only undeniable but vital to acknowledge. It is, of course, true that COVID-19 originated in China, and anyone who suggests otherwise should not be trusted. As for the WHO, its errors were serious and unforced. Its delegation to Wuhan helped China underplay the severity of the outbreak, costing the rest of the world precious weeks. It denied that COVID-19 was contagious among humans as late as January 14, in an infamous tweet. At that point, when the disease may have already been spreading silently in the United States, people who trusted the WHO for medical advice would reasonably have believed that they were safe as long as they skipped the bat carpaccio. Then Bruce Aylward, a senior WHO official, appeared to suffer a neurological glitch on television when the presenter uttered the word Taiwan, a term forbidden by mainland China. Aylward had led the WHO delegation to Wuhan in February, and his aphasic reply to the presenter’s question suggested not only that the WHO had understated the outbreak and overpraised China’s response, but that the delegation had been brainwashed during its stay. These are all good reasons to criticize the WHO.

But to weigh these reasons, good and bad—the WHO’s sins against its virtues—is to go back to playing the sucker’s game, and to have an excellent view of Abdul-Jabbar’s armpit as the basketball hurtles overhead toward the hoop. Cutting off money to the WHO is not about policy. It is misdirection: Look here, not there, because you are calling attention to something you are not welcome to see.

The crisis in the United States has passed the point where literally everyone in the country feels personally affected—grieving for the dead or dying; in fear of poverty or hunger; robbed of beloved cultural figures; or just stuck at home. The question Are you better off than you were four years ago? is a sick joke, and Trump knows that it is going to be at his expense, electorally speaking. Naturally, he responds with the tactic that has served him well before: Swap a question with an answer that damns him for one with a complicated, controversial answer that tends to damn someone, anyone, else. Watch CBS’s Paula Reid at Monday’s press conference, asking the first question: “What did you do with the month of February?” Why don’t we have extensive testing capabilities, and why are hospitals still scrambling for the gear and equipment they need to protect health-care workers and save patients?

Trump, caught having completely bungled the only issue anyone will remember him for, will do anything to escape prosecutorial inquiries like these. He will be pleased, instead, to field complaints about his treatment of the WHO. The tactic he is using is one that has fooled too many people, too many times. We should hope, along with the WHO, that we won’t get fooled again.