Get the latest on coronavirus. Sign up to the Daily Brief for news, explainers, how-tos, opinion and more.
Donald Trump has threatened to permanently halt funding for the World Health Organisation in an extraordinary letter insisting it makes major changes within the next 30 days.
The typically bombastic move could put the very agency charged with leading the fight against coronavirus at risk even as the pandemic continues to rage around the world.
But, as with most things Trump, all is not quite as it seems.
What does the letter say?
Trump accused the WHO of failing to act quickly and aggressively enough against the virus in its early days...
Wait, hang on – that sounds familiar
That’s because it’s exactly the same accusations levelled against the president – and with good reason.
Trump’s comments in the early days of the outbreak repeatedly played down the threat. On February 24 he said it was “very much under control in the USA”...
And three days later at a press conference, he said: “It’s going to disappear. One day it’s like a miracle, it will disappear.”
In the following days, Trump continued to make out the threat from coronavirus was nothing to worry about with a series of comparisons to other diseases which, in hindsight, were misguided to say the least (a reminder that the current US death toll from coronavirus stands at around 92,000).
The letter also says the WHO “consistently ignored credible reports of the virus spreading in Wuhan in early December 2019... including reports from the Lancet medical journal”.
This is simply not true and the Lancet itself tweeted on Tuesday to reiterate that its first reports on coronavirus in China weren’t published until January 24.
Hmm, what else did the letter say?
In the letter, the president said that the WHO “belatedly declared the outbreak of a Public Health Emergency of International concern on January 30,” which was more than a month after the virus was first detected in China.
So he must have been really on the ball with this, right?
Nope. Trump didn’t declare a national emergency until March 13, by which point there were around 1,300 infections in the US and 39 Americans had died.
Right. Is there more?
Of course there is – Trump also criticised the WHO because it “praised the Chinese government for its ‘transparency’ with respect to the coronavirus” on January 28.
Thing is, Trump did exactly the same just four days earlier.
So what’s the actual point of all this?
There is no escaping the fact that the US has by far the highest official death toll from the coronavirus pandemic and during an election year, that is not good news for a president hoping for reelection.
Trump’s usual *ahem* trump card, the US economy, is also out of play as the stock markets reel from the global economic impact of coronavirus.
So it appears the president has adopted a tactic of deflection, blaming everyone but himself for the woes currently facing the US.
The WHO has not been the only target – China itself has been a frequent target with the president even suggesting coronavirus was created in a Chinese laboratory and deliberately unleashed upon the world.
There is no evidence to support the theory and even Trump’s own intelligence agencies have rubbished the idea.
Who else has been a target?
Barack Obama of course. One of Trump’s favourite pastimes lately has been simply tweeting “OBAMAGATE!!!” – eleven times in the last nine days.
What is OBAMAGATE?
No one is quite sure, not even Trump.
Earlier this month in response to a question from a Washington Post reporter about the specifics of his claim, Trump replied: “Obamagate. It’s been going on for a long time. It’s been going on from before I even got elected. And it’s a disgrace that it happened.”
When pressed by the reporter to name a criminal offence, Trump said: “You know what the crime is. The crime is very obvious to everybody. All you have to do is read the newspapers, except yours.”
Can we just dismiss this as another tantrum then?
Not really. If Trump does follow through and stop funding for the WHO it would be a major blow for the very agency tasked with leading the global initiative to develop safe and effective vaccines, tests and drugs to prevent, diagnose and treat Covid-19.
The US contributed more than $400 million (£326 million) to the WHO in 2019, or about 15% of its budget.
It also traditionally provides several hundred million dollars annually in voluntary funding tied to specific WHO programmes like polio eradication, vaccine-preventable disease, HIV and hepatitis, tuberculosis, and maternal and child and health.
Is there a way out of the crisis?
Trump said in the letter the only way forward for the WHO was for it to demonstrate independence from China, adding that his administration had started discussing reform with WHO chief Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus.
But this plan could backfire – if the US withdraws funding then there is every chance China could step in to fill the gap.