Trump halt to WHO funding violates same law as Ukraine aid freeze, House Democrats say
GAO concluded that Trump broke the law when he paused hundreds of millions of dollars in critical military aid to Ukraine last summer.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi. | J. Scott Applewhite/AP Photo
By CAITLIN EMMA
04/15/2020 12:38 PM EDT
President Donald Trump’s halt to World Health Organization funding is illegal and violates the same federal spending laws as the Ukraine aid freeze that partly prompted his impeachment, House Democrats said on Wednesday.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said Trump’s decision is “dangerous, illegal and will be swiftly challenged,” without elaborating on what specific action might be taken.
But a senior administration official contended that language in the most recent spending bill for the State Department and other foreign aid programs gives Trump “broad discretion” in spending money allocated to WHO, including a possible redirection of the health organization’s funding to other international causes after the administration completes a review of the funds in two to three months. Trump announced the review at the same time he said WHO funding would be halted.https://tpc.googlesyndication.com/safeframe/1-0-37/html/container.html
House Democrats for months have homed in on the administration’s efforts to slow, halt or redirect dollars appropriated by Congress to satisfy Trump’s personal policy priorities, and they said this is another example.
They said a decision issued by the Government Accountability Office in January also applies to Trump’s action against WHO, which receives $400 million from the U.S. each year. The U.S. is the world’s largest contributor to the organization, which operates on a $4.8 billion annual budget.
GAO concluded that Trump broke the law when he paused hundreds of millions of dollars in critical military aid to Ukraine last summer, declaring that the president can’t “substitute his own policy priorities for those that Congress has enacted into law.“
Democrats said Trump is breaking that law again. “In a desperate attempt to deflect blame, President Trump is violating the same spending laws that brought about his impeachment,” Evan Hollander, a spokesperson for the House Appropriations Committee, said in a statement on Wednesday.https://tpc.googlesyndication.com/safeframe/1-0-37/html/container.html
“The President does not have the unilateral authority to withhold the United States’ assessed contribution to the World Health Organization,” he said. “Moreover, refusing to fund the WHO is a foolish step that only weakens international tools to fight this pandemic and future global health emergencies.“
But a senior administration official pointed to language included in fiscal 2020 appropriations law requiring that the administration spend the money on “necessary expenses, not otherwise provided for, to meet annual obligations of membership in international multilateral organizations.” The language doesn’t specify that the dollars must flow to WHO, the official said.
“We believe that pursuant to the appropriation, we have broad discretion to spend that money,” the administration official said.Trump announces funding halt to World Health OrganizationSharehttps://imasdk.googleapis.com/js/core/bridge3.381.0_en.html#goog_315696618Play Video
Trump announced on Tuesday night that he’ll hit pause on the health organization’s funding for 60 to 90 days while his administration reviews the group’s handling of the coronavirus outbreak, accusing WHO of bungling the response and failing to communicate the disease’s threat.
Similarly, the administration said it paused $400 million in military aid to Ukraine last summer while it conducted a “policy review,” with administration officials saying that they wanted to ensure other countries are contributing their fair share to the Eastern European region.
In January, GAO concluded that the president can’t withhold funds for a policy reason because it’s a violation of the Impoundment Control Act, a 1974 law that sharply curbs the executive branch’s authority to alter congressionally appropriated funds. The report undercut an oft-stated defense of Trump’s decision to hold the aid back: that it was a lawful exercise of the president’s authority.
“We disagree with GAO’s opinion,” OMB spokesperson Rachel Semmel said at the time. “OMB uses its apportionment authority to ensure taxpayer dollars are properly spent consistent with the president’s priorities and with the law.”
On Wednesday, the senior administration official argued that how the White House manipulates funding for WHO is an entirely separate issue.
Many Republican lawmakers have matched Trump’s criticisms of WHO over the past few weeks, accusing the organization of taking a deferential posture to the Chinese government, calling for investigations into the group’s pandemic response and demanding the resignation of WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus.
“The current WHO leadership has proven to be incompetent and shown overwhelming evidence of China bias,” Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), a close ally of the president and the chairman of the Senate Appropriations panel that oversees foreign aid, tweeted on Wednesday morning. “Cutting off funding to the WHO at this time is the right move.”
Others, like the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, acknowledged the need for reform while stressing that a funding freeze could cause more harm than good as the coronavirus continues its global spread.
“The Chamber supports a reformed but functional World Health Organization, and U.S. leadership and involvement are essential to ensuring its transparency and accountability going forward,” said Myron Brilliant, executive vice president and head of international affairs for the Chamber, in a statement.
“However, cutting the WHO’s funding during the COVID-19 pandemic is not in U.S. interests given the organization’s critical role assisting other countries — particularly in the developing world — in their response.”