Image via Shutterstock Donald Trump
Image via Shutterstock

The decision to withdraw was met with immediate criticism from Democratic and Republican lawmakers alike, as well as public health officials.

Coronavirus cases are rising in more than 35 states, but rather than work aggressively with state leaders and foreign nations to mitigate the spread, the Trump administration on Tuesday officially notified the United Nations that the United States would withdraw from the World Health Organization (WHO). 

The withdrawal notice was sent to U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres on Monday and will take effect in a year, on July 6, 2021, the State Department and the United Nations said. Guterres, in his capacity as depositary of the 1946 WHO constitution, “is in the process of verifying with the World Health Organization whether all the conditions for such withdrawal are met,” his spokesman, Stephane Dujarric, told the Associated Press.

Under current law, the U.S. must give WHO a year’s notice if it intends to withdraw and meet all the current financial obligations in the current year. The decision to withdraw stands to deal a huge blow to WHO, cutting off one of the organization’s largest sources of financial aid amid a global pandemic that has infected more than 11.6 million people and killed more than half-a-million. 

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It could also harm the health of Americans, as the WHO is leading COVID-19 vaccine development efforts and drug trials. Trump’s decision could make it more difficult for Americans to obtain treatment and vaccines, a potentially devastating outcome in a nation where nearly 3 million people have been diagnosed with the virus, more than 130,000 have died, and record numbers of new cases are confirmed nearly every day.

The announcement, which comes a little over a month after Trump first indicated he wanted to withdraw from WHO, was met with immediate criticism from Democratic and Republican lawmakers alike. Elizabeth Cousens, president and CEO of the United Nations Foundation called the decision “shortsighted” and “unequivocally dangerous,” while Lawrence Gostin, director of the O’Neill Institute for National and Global Health Law and director of the World Health Organization Collaborating Center on National and Global Health Law, described it as “among the most ruinous presidential decisions in recent history.”

It is unclear whether the White House can unilaterally pull the U.S. out of the organization and withdraw funding without congressional approval. When President Trump first threatened to withdraw in May, Democratic lawmakers said that doing so would be illegal and promised to fight such a decision. 

The withdrawal could also be rescinded under a new administration. The presumptive Democratic nominee for president, Joe Biden, made clear where he stood on Tuesday, declaring that if he were elected, he would rejoin WHO on his first day in office.

But it remains possible that Trump will prevail, and if he does, it would further fuel America’s growing isolation from the rest of the world, including close allies. The WHO, founded in 1948, was a post-World War II creation of the United Nations and is the world’s premier global health organization. 

Trump, who has been roundly criticized for his flailing and ineffectual response to COVID-19, has tried to shift blame to the WHO for the pandemic’s worldwide spread, even though the agency issued its first warning on January 4, just five days after word of the virus emerged from Wuhan, China.

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The agency has come under criticism for missteps, but even its critics have argued to wait until the pandemic has passed to analyze the WHO’s failings. Experts and lawmakers argue that by withdrawing now, President Trump is putting the nation’s health at risk.

“Withdrawing U.S. membership could, among other things, interfere with clinical trials that are essential to the development of vaccines, which citizens of the United States as well as others in the world need,” Sen. Lamar Alexander, Republican of Tennessee, said on Tuesday. “And withdrawing could make it harder to work with other countries to stop viruses before they get to the United States.”

The Associated Press contributed to this report