President Donald Trump's first step toward pulling World Health Organization funding during the coronavirus pandemic has set the stage for another legal tug of war with House Democrats wary of him treading on their power.
Facing sustained backlash for his handling of the outbreak as U.S. Covid-19 cases top any other country in the world, the president on Tuesday criticized the United Nations agency for what he called its "role in severely mismanaging and covering up the spread of the coronavirus." Trump said he was "instructing [his] administration to halt funding" to the WHO during a 60 to 90-day review period.
House Democrats argued that suspending funding would hamper the global response to the disease ripping across the globe. They also contended he cannot withdraw money already appropriated by Congress under its constitutional authority — suggesting a court fight over Trump's power looms if he pulls funding.
"This decision is dangerous, illegal and will be swiftly challenged," House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said in a statement Wednesday.
The party also raised the specter of the White House's decision to withhold congressionally-approved military aid to Ukraine last year as Trump urged the country to investigate his political rival, apparent Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden. The action led to the House impeaching Trump. The Senate acquitted him in February.
"In a desperate attempt to deflect blame, President Trump is violating the same spending laws that brought about his impeachment," House Appropriations Committee spokesman Evan Hollander said in a statement. "The President does not have the unilateral authority to withhold the United States' assessed contribution to the World Health Organization."
Congress allocated $122 million for the WHO in fiscal year 2020. The organization gets assessed contributions, essentially membership dues from member countries, along with voluntary contributions from states and private organizations.
The White House, which has generally sought to dial back U.S. involvement in and funding for international organizations during Trump's first term, proposed cutting the $122 million sum roughly in half in its 2021 budget. But Congress has the power to set the final amount.
In January, the nonpartisan Government Accountability Office said the Trump administration broke the law when it froze Ukraine aid. The agency said the White House ran afoul of the Impoundment Control Act, which requires the president to get approval from Congress within 45 days if he proposes to withhold appropriated money.
"Faithful execution of the law does not permit the President to substitute his own policy priorities for those that Congress has enacted into law," the GAO wrote in January.
The White House is set to use a broad interpretation of the law in arguing Trump can halt funding to the WHO. The administration will contend lawmakers approved the money within a pool of "global aid" funds, meaning he can redirect to another organization that meets the criteria, administration officials told CNBC.
The WHO broadly works to expand health care services and help countries prepare and respond to emergencies. Losing American funding would hamper the agency: the U.S. gave an average of $446 million to the organization for 2018 and 2019 in both required and voluntary contributions, making up nearly 15% of its total budget.
In explaining his rationale on Tuesday, Trump claimed one of the agency's "most dangerous and costly decisions" was to oppose travel restrictions from China, where Covid-19 originated. He reined in travel from China on Jan. 31, and has defended the move as a key step in slowing the disease's spread.
As the Trump administration faces criticism for failing to ramp up access to coronavirus testing and production of protective medical equipment before the U.S. outbreak worsened, it has increasingly pinned blame on China for causing the spread of Covid-19.
He has argued the WHO was not skeptical enough of China's claims during the early stages of the pandemic.
At a Wednesday news conference, WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said "we regret the decision" by Trump to halt funding.
— CNBC's Ylan Mui, Eamon Javers and Berkeley Lovelace Jr. contributed to this report