Updated on Thursday at 11:20 a.m. ET
National security adviser Robert O'Brien has accused the World Health Organization of being "a bit of a propaganda tool for the Chinese," and said the White House is investigating whether money from China influenced the WHO's judgments during the coronavirus crisis.
O'Brien made the remarks in an interview with Morning Edition host Steve Inskeep on Tuesday. The interview airs Wednesday.
President Trump announced last week that the White House is putting a hold on the United States' funding of the WHO, pending an investigation.
O'Brien said China "controls" the WHO, and said the administration's investigation is intended to uncover how.
"We spend almost half a billion dollars with the WHO," he told Inskeep. "China, which controls the WHO, unfortunately — the WHO has become a bit of a propaganda tool for the Chinese — spends about $40 million. At least that's what they spend with the organization openly. How they may spend other money to influence the organization — that's something we're investigating very carefully."
O'Brien said "we just don't know" whether money from China influenced the WHO's decision-making.
"There's obviously a lot of corruption at international organizations and we're going to take a close look at that issue," he said. "But there are very few explanations for the way the WHO has conducted itself. And that's why we're taking a pause on the money that we're going to put into the WHO until we have a thorough investigation of what happened here."
Asked for details about what form the investigation is taking, O'Brien repeated the same criticisms that Trump has made frequently in recent weeks: that the WHO was slow to respond to the threat of COVID-19, that it criticized Trump's ban on travel from China and other countries, and that it gave unwarranted praise to China's containment of the virus.
He also said that if the White House can't get "the reforms necessary" at WHO, it will instead give money directly to aid organizations such as the Red Cross and Doctors Without Borders. However, Doctors Without Borders says it does not accept U.S. government funding.
The U.S. is the single largest contributor to the WHO. For the two-year cycle of 2018 and 2019, U.S. contributions accounted for about 20% of the WHO's total budget, as NPR's Pien Huang reported. For that two-year period, the U.S. contribution in assessed fees was $237 million, and it pledged an additional $656 million for specific programs. The U.S. contributes 22% of the WHO's pool of assessed fees, while China contributes 12%.
In recent days, administration officials including Secretary of State Mike Pompeo have been raising the idea that the virus might have leaked from a lab in Wuhan, China.
"We don't know where the virus came from," O'Brien said. "Maybe it came from a wet market in Wuhan. Maybe it came from one of the two virology labs in Wuhan. ... The burden is on the Chinese to explain where the virus came from. But there is a lab in Wuhan that deals with this sort of virus. And we need to know if there was some sort of release. Accidental, perhaps."
O'Brien is the president's fourth national security adviser. He was named to the post in September, replacing John Bolton, who was forced out by Trump.
STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
President Trump's administration is fighting a battle over who's to blame for the pandemic. One participant is our next guest - national security adviser Robert O'Brien. He's defending the president's much-criticized response. He's also sharpening the U.S. critique of China and of the World Health Organization. The U.S. said it would pause funding for the WHO while demanding investigations of its early statements supporting China. Ambassador O'Brien came to the line yesterday afternoon.
ROBERT O'BRIEN: We spend almost half a billion dollars with the WHO. China, which controls the WHO - unfortunately, the WHO has become a bit of a propaganda tool for the Chinese - spends about $40 million. At least that's what they spend with the organization openly. How they - they may spend other money to influence the organization. That's something we're investigating very carefully.
But what the president has said is that if we can't get the reforms necessary at the WHO, we're going to spend that money directly with the NGOs, whether it's the Red Cross, whether it's Doctors Without Borders, other NGOs that are actually helping people - COVID patients - and helping to stop the spread of this virus. We're...
INSKEEP: Did you say - forgive me, Ambassador. Did you say that Chinese money may have influenced the WHO in its medical or public health judgments?
O'BRIEN: Yeah. We just don't know. It's - and that's something we're investigating. I mean, there's obviously a lot of corruption in international organizations, and we're going to take a close look at that issue.
INSKEEP: Why do the president and the secretary of state lean so hard on the theory that the virus might have come from a lab?
O'BRIEN: Well, look; we don't know where the virus came from. That burden is on the Chinese. And so - look; maybe it came from a wet market in Wuhan. Maybe it came from one of the two virology labs in Wuhan. We know it came from China. We know it probably came from Wuhan, China. And it's up to the Chinese to now meet the burden to let the international community know how this virus developed, how it got out, how it spread. We need, you know, a lot of data from the Chinese that we're not getting.
INSKEEP: I'd like to know, though, regarding the lab, our colleague Geoff Brumfiel is reporting that the Wuhan lab was trained in its safety protocols through a U.S.-funded program. General Mark Milley, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, has said that U.S. intelligence estimates have found the virus likely occurred in nature - maybe not for certain but likely. If there's just no evidence at this point that it came from a lab, is that a political statement to raise that suspicion?
O'BRIEN: No, I don't think it's a political statement. And I've never said that it came from a lab. What we've said - and what a lot of reporters are pointing out - is that there are these two labs in Wuhan. One of the labs was dealing with this type of virus. There was also a wet market where horrific, you know, images and things happened with the slaughter of exotic animals and bats and otherwise. So look; we just don't know where it came from. We need to get to the bottom of it. That burden is really on China.
INSKEEP: Ambassador, some people will know that you wrote in the Wall Street Journal defending the president's early response to the pandemic. And you do note seven actions the president did take, notably, banning flights from China, for example. But what do you say to those who look at the casualty figures now and say that clearly wasn't enough?
O'BRIEN: Well, I think what you have to do is look at what we knew. And at the time that the president started making very difficult decisions like banning travel from - by foreign nationals from China - we allowed Americans to come home and green card holders to come home subject to a quarantine. But look; at the time, there were very few deaths. And I don't think there were any deaths in the United States at the time that China travel ban took place. There were very few cases. And the president made the hard decisions very early on the process. Had our allies done what President Trump did on the 31, this would have been much easier to contain.
INSKEEP: But let me ask about this - you lay out in this article a timeline of seven decisions. There are actions in January. There are actions in March. But there's nothing in February which seems to have been a vital month when more and more was known every day. Why was nothing big done then?
O'BRIEN: Well, look; we had taken action. We'd taken action on the China ban. And in February, there was a lot of effort undertaken to start preparing to respond to this outbreak - looking at how we could set up manufacturing for ventilators. We had a situation where we thought we were going to be short of ventilators - or at least many people predicted that. It turns out we're going to be a world power in ventilators. We'll have hundreds of thousands of ventilators by the end of June. And we're going to be able to share those ventilators not only with states around America, not only have a stockpile that we should have had that we didn't have when the president took office. And we're going to be able to make sure that folks around the world get ventilators.
INSKEEP: Is China using propaganda about the pandemic to try to promote its system and also discredit the U.S. system?
O'BRIEN: There's no question about it. They've been using propaganda throughout this, including at one point claiming that the virus was started by the U.S. Army. And so they've been using propaganda about how successful they were in shutting down the spread of the virus. Now, look; it's an authoritarian government, and China did things that the democratic governments would never do in order to stop the spread. I mean, they were - you know, there were photos that we all saw on TV of them welding the doors of apartments shut. I don't think that China will win a propaganda war here.
I think the best thing the Chinese can do is to be friendly, to let people know that they're sorry that this virus emerged like the others out of Wuhan and to continue to provide PPE and pharmaceuticals and all the things that China manufacturers - continue to provide those to the rest of the world but do it in a way that doesn't require a quid pro quo from countries that are receiving aid from China.
INSKEEP: Big picture question - people have compared this pandemic to a world war. And of course, world wars shifted the global balance of power. And now we have competing political systems all fighting the same pandemic - the U.S. system, the European system, the Chinese system, on and on. Do you think the system that handles this crisis best is likely to come out stronger than others?
O'BRIEN: Look; I believe in human freedom, liberty and free agency. And I would always bet on freedom and liberty and agency. Sometimes other forms of government, whether it's a war and a pandemic situation or otherwise, get a jump on the democracies. But at the end of the day, the democracies win. America always wins. We're a winning nation. And I think we're going to remain a model the rest of the world wants to emulate.
INSKEEP: But would you take that additional step and suggest that whoever handles this pandemic best will be in a better position to write the rules of the world afterward?
O'BRIEN: Yeah. Look; I don't think it's going to be a question of one country or another writing the rules of the world. I think it's going to be very difficult for the Chinese to write the rules of the world. They have a mercantilist, very nationalist type ideology, and it's about China. And I think we have a global ideology of liberty and freedom. And I think that's always going to win in a contest between nations, pandemic or war or other disaster. And so I'm confident in our way of life. I'm confident in democracy, the rule of law and liberty - those being the things that if you ask the average person on the street, whether it was in America or Brazil or South Africa or Thailand, wherever you are around the world - India - that's what people want.
INSKEEP: Robert C. O'Brien is the national security adviser serving under President Trump. Thanks very much.
O'BRIEN: Hey, thanks. Good to be with you, Steve. Take care.
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