WHITE HOUSE - The United States is "going to put a very powerful hold" on money it sends to the World Health Organization, President Donald Trump said on Tuesday, blaming the United Nations humanitarian entity of missing the onslaught of the COVID-19 pandemic.
"They called it wrong. They missed the call," Trump told reporters at the White House, implying that it may have done so out of deference to China, where the novel coronavirus was first reported.
"They seem to be very China-centric," the president said. "We have to look into that."
The United States is the largest contributor to the WHO.
When asked by a reporter whether it would be prudent to strangle funding to the organization amid a pandemic, the president denied he said he was doing that, modifying his remark to "we're going to look at it."
The WHO did not immediately comment on Trump's remarks.
Hours earlier, U.N. Spokesman Stephane Dujarric rejected general criticism of the WHO, saying it "has done tremendous work on COVID," including providing global guidelines, assisting governments with training and sending millions of pieces of equipment to help countries respond to the outbreak.
Meanwhile, President Trump is brushing off reports about his administration's internal early warning that the new coronavirus could cost the U.S. economy trillions of dollars and kill on a massive scale.
Trump's trade adviser, Peter Navarro, sounded an initial alarm on Jan. 29, when there were already confirmed cases of COVID-19 in more than a dozen countries, with a memo to the National Security Council.
"I didn't see it," Trump said of Navarro's memo, describing it as "a recommendation. It was a feeling that he had."
A subsequent written warning by Navarro to the NSC on Feb. 23 noted a "full blown COVID-19 pandemic" could infect as many as 100 million Americans and kill between 1 million and 2 million, according to White House sources.
"I'm a cheerleader for this country. I don't want to create havoc and shock," said Trump, indicating that even if he had been aware of the dire predictions at the time he would not have made them public.
The president did act on one suggestion from Navarro: quickly restricting travel from China, something he has repeatedly touted. Trump, however, at that time was predicting a quick end to the spread of the new virus.
"It's going to have a very good ending for us," Trump had said of the coronavirus in a Jan. 30 speech.
Asked Tuesday by a reporter to reflect on that, the president responded: "I couldn't have done it any better."
The total number of cases of the coronavirus in the United States is approaching 400,000. More than 12,000 deaths in the country are attributed to COVID-19 with one-third of those in New York City, the current global epicenter of the pandemic.
The governor of New York is cautioning residents not to expect a quick return to normalcy, noting that the 1918 influenza pandemic peaked for six months and 30,000 people died in the state.
"Social distancing is working," Governor Andrew Cuomo said Tuesday. "I know it's hard, but we have to keep doing it."
The president on Tuesday said that his administration is effectively addressing the financial toll the virus is taking on the country's economy with about $70 billion of $350 billion to cover small business payrolls "essentially loaned."
It is still not clear how much of that has reached business owners, with many reporting they have yet to see any money.
Trump has effectively removed the leader of a new watchdog panel tasked with keeping check on how his administration will be spending trillions of dollars of taxpayer money meant to help individuals and businesses suffering economic harm from the spread of the coronavirus.
Glenn Fine, the acting inspector general for the Defense Department, last week was named by a group of inspectors general of the executive branch to be the chairman of the new Pandemic Response Accountability Committee.
The president, however, on Tuesday, named the Environmental Protection Agency's inspector general, Sean O'Donnell, to be the acting inspector general for the Defense Department, knocking Fine out of his role of oversight for the coronavirus relief funds.
Democrats in Congress quickly cried foul. Senator Chuck Schumer, who is the minority leader, called Trump's action corrupt.
The president defended his move, saying there were "reports of bias" about the inspector general. He cited no example, however.
The president has a growing track record of rejecting government oversight. On Monday, he accused the U.S. health department's inspector general of producing a "fake dossier."
The report detailed serious shortages of supplies at the country's hospitals amid the coronavirus pandemic. Last Friday, Trump ousted the inspector general of the intelligence community who had been involved in the events leading to the president's impeachment in the House.