WASHINGTON — Congressional Democrats alleged Wednesday that it would be illegal for President Trump to try to withhold money from the World Health Organization, igniting a dispute that echoed the impeachment showdown over Trump’s delay of security assistance to Ukraine.
‘‘The president’s halting of funding to the WHO as it leads the global fight against the coronavirus pandemic is senseless,’’ House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, a California Democrat, said in a statement. “We can only be successful in defeating this global pandemic through a coordinated international response with respect for science and data.
‘”This decision is dangerous, illegal, and will be swiftly challenged,’’ Pelosi said.
Pelosi’s comments came a day after Trump declared he would be suspending payments to the WHO in response to the United Nations agency’s handling of the coronavirus pandemic. Trump criticized the WHO for opposing his decision at the end of January to block and quarantine travelers from China, and also accused the WHO of mismanagement and of abetting a Chinese coverup of the early stages of the pandemic.
Trump’s announcement set off a torrent of criticism from Democrats and international health experts who accused the president of trying to deflect blame from his own mishandling of the situation, while weakening the principal international organization leading the response to the pandemic. Bill Gates, whose foundation is the second-largest donor to the WHO after the US government, said that the decision was ‘‘as dangerous as it sounds.’’
‘‘Halting funding for the World Health Organization during a world health crisis is as dangerous as it sounds,’’ Gates tweeted early Wednesday. ‘‘Their work is slowing the spread of COVID-19 and if that work is stopped no other organization can replace them. The world needs @WHO now more than ever.’’
Trump said on Tuesday that the halt in US funding would continue for a period of 60 to 90 days ‘‘while a review is conducted to assess the World Health Organization’s role and severely mismanaging and covering up the spread of the coronavirus.’’
‘‘We have not been treated properly,’’ Trump said at the Tuesday press briefing. He added, ‘‘The WHO pushed China’s misinformation about the virus.’’
It remains unclear whether the US cut off money to the main international organization, or if Trump is setting conditions for a resumption of US payments at a later date.
The announcement looms as a potentially devastating blow to the agency during the coronavirus pandemic, as the US donations make up nearly 15 percent of all voluntary donations given worldwide.
The criticism from Gates, whose foundation has committed up to $100 million as part of the global response to the pandemic, comes as Trump has attempted to deflect blame for the administration’s failure to respond vigorously and early to the deadly novel coronavirus.
Others, such as the American Medical Association, called Trump’s announcement to cut WHO funding ‘‘a dangerous step in the wrong direction.’’
‘‘Cutting funding to the WHO — rather than focusing on solutions— is a dangerous move at a precarious moment for the world,’’ the organization said in a statement. ‘‘The AMA is deeply concerned by this decision and its wide-ranging ramifications, and we strongly urge the President to reconsider.’’
While some of Trump’s conservative allies are now focusing on the WHO as complicit in a Chinese coverup of the outbreak, others have urged the president to hold off on moving forward on suspending funding.
‘‘If the president wants to genuinely hold the WHO accountable, counter Chinese efforts to shift blame for COVID-19, and reform the WHO to better respond to the next pandemic, he should not cut funding — at least not yet,’’ wrote Brett D. Schaefer, an expert at the conservative Heritage Foundation and member of the UN’s Committee on Contributions.
It isn’t the first time that Gates has questioned the country’s response to the pandemic. In a TED interview last month, Gates, while not mentioning Trump by name, suggested that the push to relax social distancing to reopen the country was reckless.
‘‘There really is no middle ground, and it’s very tough to say to people: ‘Hey, keep going to restaurants, go buy new houses, ignore that pile of bodies over in the corner. We want you to keep spending because there’s maybe a politician who thinks GDP growth is all that counts,’’’ Gates said. ‘‘It’s very irresponsible for somebody to suggest that we can have the best of both worlds.’’
But Trump administration officials defended the decision to suspend WHO funding, which also won support from some congressional Republicans.
‘‘Cutting off funding at this time is the right move,’’ said Senator Lindsey Graham, Republican of South Carolina. ‘‘This is a critical time for worldwide public health and we cannot afford China apologists running the WHO. I support a suspension of funding by the United States until there is new leadership at the WHO.’’
But the debate on Capitol Hill quickly turned to the president’s authority to take the step he had announced, and shades of the impeachment battle immediately emerged. In the impeachment fight, the US Government Accountability Office determined that the White House had violated the law by delaying funding for Ukraine that Congress had already approved. Trump was impeached by the House of Representatives over the issue in December, and acquitted by the Senate in February.
US funding for the World Health Organization flows from two different pots: Dues that are assessed by the WHO and appropriated annually by Congress; and voluntary contributions made by the US in response to various health emergencies or needs. For 2020, the assessed contribution is about $120 million, of which the US has already paid half. Annual voluntary contributions have ranged between $200 million and $300 million.
House Democrats contended that Trump does not have the authority to block the remainder of the assessed contribution from being paid out to WHO.