- The Trump administration has begun the process of formally withdrawing the US from the World Health Organization.
- The president has accused the UN’s health agency of being too China-centric, even though he praised Beijing’s handling of COVID-19 in the early months of the initial outbreak.
- Legal scholars and global-health experts say President Donald Trump cannot unilaterally withdraw the US from the WHO, and requires congressional approval.
- “As the complex process moves forward, I would expect Congress to weigh in on the wisdom of divorcing the entirety of US global health policy from the network of disease fighting programs that the US helped to build over decades, with the aid and cooperation of WHO and other countries,” Dr. Jack Chow, a former WHO assistant director-general, told Insider.
President Donald Trump has sent letters to both the United Nations and Congress informing them he’s formally withdrawing the US from the World Health Organization over its response to the coronavirus pandemic.
Trump, who routinely praised Beijing’s handling of coronavirus early on and has overseen the world’s worst outbreak, has accused the WHO of being too China-centric and botching its response to the coronavirus pandemic.
“The United States’ notice of withdrawal, effective July 6, 2021, has been submitted to the UN Secretary-General, who is the depository for the WHO,” a senior Trump administration official told Insider on Tuesday.
But it’s a complicated process and experts say Trump does not have the legal authority to withdraw from the WHO without congressional approval. Meanwhile, critics say that withdrawing from the WHO amid a pandemic that’s already killed over 131,000 Americans is counterintuitive.
“Trump’s withdrawal letter formally triggers a year-long countdown for the US departure from WHO. It places the WHO, the US, and the global health community into a critical period of uncertainty when the world needs leadership and unity to fight COVID-19,” Dr. Jack Chow, a former WHO assistant director-general who also served as a US ambassador for global HIV/AIDS during the George W. Bush administration, told Insider.
“As the complex process moves forward, I would expect Congress to weigh in on the wisdom of divorcing the entirety of US global health policy from the network of disease fighting programs that the US helped to build over decades, with the aid and cooperation of WHO and other countries,” Chow added.
Trump has to pay up if he wants to leave
Based on the terms of a joint resolution approved by Congress in 1948 that authorized the president to accept membership in the WHO, the US has to give 12 months’ notice and meet all its financial obligations before it can withdrawal.
The WHO is funded through assessed and voluntary contributions from governments and other donors.
Assessed contributions are mandatory dues governments agree to pay upon becoming members of the WHO. Congress doesn’t specifically appropriate funds to the WHO, but has authorized appropriations to the State Department to cover US obligations to the UN’s health agency. The US government’s assessed contributions to the WHO for fiscal year 2020 amount to $122.6 million, and it still owes roughly $60 million.
“Congress has conditioned withdrawal from the WHO on fulfillment of US financial obligations. Thus, it appears that a formal notice to withdraw may not take legal effect until the United States satisfies its current financial obligations,” according to a Congressional Research Service report released last month.
In short, Trump has to pay up if he wants to leave.
Scholars: Trump ‘lacks the legal authority to withdraw’ without Congress
Given Congress controls the power of the purse, and it has conditioned US withdrawal from the WHO on the fulfillment of financial obligations, legal scholars also contend that pulling the US from the UN’s health agency requires congressional action.
“The United States’ departure from the WHO is not as simple as Trump assumes … Try as he might, Trump can’t skirt Capitol Hill when attempting withdrawal from a vital multilateral organization such as the WHO,” Harold Hongju Koh, an international law professor at Yale Law, and Lawrence Gostin, a global-health law professor at Georgetown, wrote in Foreign Affairs last month.
In late June, 750 scholars and experts in global public health, US constitutional law, and international law and relations wrote to Congress in opposition to US withdrawal from the WHO.
The letter explicitly states that Trump “lacks the legal authority to withdraw” from the WHO “without congressional participation and approval.”
The letter says that unilateral withdrawal from the WHO raises “significant separation of powers concerns.”
“With the Constitution silent on the process of withdrawing from a treaty, the best understanding of the Constitution is a ‘mirror principle,’ under which the same process the US government uses to enter a treaty is required to withdraw from it. The United States joined WHO through a 1948 joint resolution of Congress. Therefore, a joint resolution would be required to withdraw,” the letter adds.
Democrats oppose withdrawing from WHO and Biden could easily reverse the move if elected
When Trump announced plans to cut funding to the WHO in April, congressional lawmakers said it would be illegal without their approval. “This decision is dangerous, illegal and will be swiftly challenged,” House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said at the time.
Last year, in a move that would ultimately be central to the impeachment proceedings against him, Trump withheld congressionally approved military aid from Ukraine. The US Government Accountability Office, an independent watchdog, announced in January that the White House broke the law when it withheld the aid.
Congressional Democrats have contended that withholding aid from the WHO would violate the same law, known as the Impoundment Control Act, which limits when a president can defer congressionally approved spending, by substituting “his own policy priorities for those that Congress has enacted into law.”
Former Vice President Joe Biden, the presumptive Democratic presidential nominee, has also said he’d reverse Trump’s decision if elected president.
“Americans are safer when America is engaged in strengthening global health. On my first day as President, I will rejoin the @WHO and restore our leadership on the world stage,” Biden said in a tweet on Tuesday.
Given it takes at least 12 months to fully withdraw from the WHO, the former vice president could win the election and be inaugurated long before the process is complete, granting him ample time to reverse the move.
“A new Congress and potentially a new president could choose to reverse Trump’s decision in time for the US to retain its participation in WHO,” Chow said.
‘A global Covid-19 vaccine policy without US and WHO cooperation risks confusion and disorder’
Beyond the legal and practical hurdles Trump faces in withdrawing from the WHO, there are widespread concerns among public-health experts that pulling from the UN’s health agency amid a pandemic is a dangerous, self-defeating move.
There’s broad agreement among experts that the WHO is a flawed organization, but they also say that retaining membership is essential to global health and the best means of having a say in improving it as an institution.
The WHO plays a vital role in assisting and advising developing countries on public-health crises. The US is the largest contributor to the WHO, supplying about 15% of the organization’s biennial budget. Along these lines, public-health professionals and experts are concerned that US withdrawal could exacerbate the coronavirus pandemic.
“One area where US and WHO must cooperate in some way is the question of how to distribute any working vaccine against COVID-19,” Chow said.
“As many of the leading vaccine makers are American, or American-related, a just and equitable system of making and sharing a vaccine must involve WHO as most poor countries rely on it for advice and aid. A global Covid-19 vaccine policy without US and WHO cooperation risks confusion and disorder.”
Gostin in tweets on Tuesday said it was “unethical” for the US to withdraw from the WHO, saying that the UN’s health agency is “vital” because “an outbreak anywhere could rapidly spread to US.”
“We also owe duty to our fellow citizens worldwide. We owe a duty to other nations, while they have reciprocal duties. We’re in this together,” Gostin added.
Hilary Brueck, Sonam Sheth, and Eliza Relman contributed reporting.