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U.S. Was Behind On Payments To WHO Before Trump's Cutoff


Can you cut off money that's already been cut off? It sounds like a riddle. It's not. It's a question people have been asking since President Trump announced he would stop funding for the World Health Organization. Here's NPR's David Welna to explain what's going on.

DAVID WELNA, BYLINE: The U.S. was supposed to pay the WHO $118 million in membership dues the first day of this year. But none of that money has been paid, neither was a lot of what was owed for last year. So in mid-April, when President Trump said this...


PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: Today I'm instructing my administration to halt funding of the World Health Organization.

WELNA: ...Jimmy Kolker did a double take.

JIMMY KOLKER: We were already in arrears before he said anything. And we certainly had not paid anything from the current appropriation.

WELNA: Kolker was an assistant secretary for global health policy in the Obama administration. He's seen the U.S. get behind before on its payments to the WHO but never to the degree it has now. Amid the worst global health disaster of the past century, Kolker notes that close to $200 million were passed due the WHO prior to Trump's freeze on funding.

KOLKER: It's certainly irresponsible and reneging on a commitment that's very clear that we made and that we want to uphold and we want other countries to uphold.

WELNA: The money for the WHO was actually approved by Congress last year as part of a larger annual appropriation for the United Nations. Last week, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi told NPR's weekend All Things Considered Trump won't get away with holding up that WHO funding indefinitely.


NANCY PELOSI: He can do it temporarily. But he can't do it as a policy. In other words, if he wants to hold up some money, it is questionable in terms of its legality. But he cannot stop the money ever from going.

WELNA: We're really talking here about two pots of money. The first is funding Congress has already approved. That's the money the U.S. has fallen behind on. The second pot of money is future spending for the WHO. A State Department spokesperson who requested anonymity tells NPR that the 60 to 90-day funding halt ordered by Trump only affects that new money for the WHO and not what Congress has already approved. Still, last month, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo warned on Fox News this might be the last money the WHO gets from the U.S.


MIKE POMPEO: It may be the case that the United States can never return to underwriting...


POMPEO: ...To having U.S. taxpayer dollars go to the WHO. We may need to be - have even bolder change than that.

WELNA: Pompeo would like to send global health funding to groups other than the WHO. James Richardson, the State Department's director of foreign assistance, explains.


JAMES RICHARDSON: There are plenty of amazing and highly qualified organizations implementing these programs around the world. And to be honest, no organization - or country, for that matter - is owed a single nickel from the American people.

WELNA: But with more than $200 million in unpaid dues, the U.S. actually owes the WHO well more than a nickel. The nation that's responsible for 15% of the WHOs budget now stands alone among the world's wealthy nations, not only in not paying off this year's annual assessment but last year's as well. Yet at the same time the U.S. is holding back on those payments, it did send $30 million to the WHO for its pandemic emergency response fund. Such mixed signals are why Ashish Jha, who directs Harvard's Global Health Institute, says Trump simply wants to make the WHO a scapegoat.

ASHISH JHA: I don't think that there is any real appetite in the U.S. government to walk away from WHO for the long run. This is much more political posturing. So the part of me just sort of says, we should take the president and this bluster a little less seriously.

WELNA: Especially when that president says he's freezing funding for the WHO when it turns out that money was already being held up.

David Welna, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

David Welna is NPR's national security correspondent.