WHITE HOUSE - U.S. funding to the World Health Organization is being halted by President Donald Trump, who blames it for creating "a 20-fold increase" in COVID-19 cases worldwide.
The U.N. health agency, according to Trump, made a "disastrous decision" to oppose his restrictions on travel from China and put "political correctness above life-saving measures."
The action had been expected as Trump repeatedly signaled the move after accusing the WHO of having a bias in favor of China, despite the United States being its largest single funder.
The president said the freeze on funds for the global agency will remain in place "for 60 to 90 days" while a review of its response to the outbreak of the coronavirus is conducted.
Trump contends that the WHO failed in its "basic duty" to investigate early reports out of China about the virus in December of last year.
"Withholding funds for WHO in the midst of the worst pandemic in a century makes as much sense as cutting off ammunition to an ally as the enemy closes in," said Senator Patrick Leahy, the top Democrat on the Appropriations Committee and ranking member of the subcommittee on State Department and foreign operations.
"The White House knows that it grossly mishandled this crisis from the beginning, ignoring multiple warnings and squandering valuable time, dismissing medical science, comparing COVID-19 to the common cold, and saying 'everything will be fine,'" Leahy said.
The House Oversight Committee added its own criticism, saying in a letter to Trump that his WHO blame "reflects an astonishing level of hypocrisy given your own fawning and widely publicized praise of President Xi Jinping and his government for their handling of this crisis."
In a statement Tuesday night, U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres repeated his support of the WHO from a week ago:
“It is my belief that the World Health Organization must be supported, as it is absolutely critical to the world’s efforts to win the war against COVID-19.
“Once we have finally turned the page on this epidemic, there must be a time to look back fully to understand how such a disease emerged and spread its devastation so quickly across the globe, and how all those involved reacted to the crisis.
“But now is not that time.”
“As it is not that time, it also not the time to reduce the resources for the operations of the World Health Organization or any other humanitarian organization in the fight against the virus.”
After a backlash, including from several key senators in his own Republican Party, Trump modified his assertions of the previous day that he would use his "ultimate authority" to soon lift stay-at-home directives and reopen the country's economy.
Reopening individual states
Trump announced he would allow each governor to decide on how and when they would reopen their individual economies.
"We'll open it up in beautiful little pieces," he said, explaining that in his view 20 of the 50 states are "in extremely good shape" and have been spared, until now, the brunt of the coronavirus.
According to the president, some states not hard hit by the virus could reopen before May 1, the day after the social distancing extended guidelines of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention are to end.
Trump on Monday said he "calls the shots," in reply to a question from VOA about whether consortiums of states developing their own reopening plans pose a challenge to his authority to declare a national reopening amid the pandemic.
"They can't do anything without the approval of the president of the United States," Trump said.
In response Tuesday, the New York governor, Andrew Cuomo, said Trump was "clearly spoiling for a fight" with state leaders, but "I am not going to fight with him," explaining that the COVID-19 pandemic, which has killed more than 25,000 Americans, is no time for any division between the federal and state governments.
Asked about Cuomo's remark that he was acting more like a king than a president, Trump replied: "I didn't declare myself as king."
Adam White, resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, told VOA, "The president has some rhetorical authority, that's why he's giving all these press conferences and speeches. But day-to-day authority really does reside first and foremost with state and local governments and it always has under our system of government."
Dr. Anthony Fauci, a member of the White House coronavirus task force and the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases since 1984, on Tuesday, told the Associated Press that the United States does not yet have the critical testing and tracing procedures needed to begin reopening the nation's economy.
"We have to have something in place that is efficient and that we can rely on, and we're not there yet," Fauci said.
Governors also said this week they do not have sufficient testing supplies to carry out mass surveillance.
Trump said the federal government is going to insist states test people at their borders for COVID-19.
Cuomo and five other governors of northeastern states began deliberations Tuesday on a regional plan to reopen their economies. The governors of three Western states, California, Oregon and Washington, also announced Monday they are similarly taking a unified approach. The East and West Coast consortiums together represent about 100 million people, nearly a third of the country's population.
Trump also announced on Tuesday the Great American Economic Revival Industry Groups to suggest guidelines on reopening the country. The members will include business and labor union leaders, as well as economists, religious leaders and politicians.
"They already know what I want," the president said. "I don't have to give them instructions. These are very sophisticated people. These are the best people in their fields."
The new grouping is viewed as a potential counterweight to the primary task force focused on public health. Neither Fauci nor another high-profile member of the initial task force, Dr. Deborah Birx, spoke at Tuesday's event.
Airline industry bailout
Trump also announced his administration has reached an agreement in principle with 10 U.S. airlines over the terms of a $25 billion bailout to prop up an industry crippled by the pandemic.
The president of the Association of Flight Attendants union, Sara Nelson, called the payout "an unprecedented accomplishment," but she criticized Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin for delaying the funds and for asking that airlines repay a portion of them.
"We welcome the news that a number of major airlines intend to participate in the Payroll Support Program," Mnuchin said in a statement. "This is an important CARES Act program that will support American workers and help preserve the strategic importance of the airline industry while allowing for appropriate compensation to the taxpayers."
Patsy Widakuswara and Katherine Gypson contributed to this report.