Trump’s Attacks on the World Health Organization Are Hurting Its Brand

Net approval for the WHO has dropped 29 points this month
President Donald Trump takes questions on April 19 at the daily coronavirus task force briefing. New polling finds voters souring on the World Health Organization's handling of the pandemic as Trump has attacked its "China-centric" posture on the coronavirus. (Tasos Katopodis/Getty Images)
April 21, 2020 at 5:00 am UTC

Key Takeaways

  • Net approval for WHO’s handling of coronavirus is down 56 points with Republican voters since Trump turned up attacks.

  • 55% approve of the United Nations-led group’s handling of coronavirus, compared to 30% who disapprove.

  • 38 percent of voters blame Beijing for the spread of coronavirus in the United States, a new high.

President Donald Trump’s repeated attacks on how the World Health Organization and China handled the onset of the coronavirus pandemic appear to be having an impact on voters.

In the latest Morning Consult poll, 55 percent of voters approved of the global health organization’s handling of the pandemic while 30 percent disapproved, a decline of 29 percentage points in net approval from earlier this month. The change was driven by a dramatic drop among Republican voters as the share of the electorate that primarily blames China for the spread of the coronavirus in the United States ticked up in recent weeks.

In the weeks since an April 3-5 poll, when 71 percent of voters backed the WHO’s handling of the pandemic and 17 percent disapproved, the United Nations-led group has become a punching bag for the president. On April 7, Trump scorched the organization from behind a White House lectern after the WHO spoke out in late January against his decision to limit travel to the United States from China, and threatened to withhold its funding. A week later, he made good on the threat and accused the organization of “severely mismanaging and covering up the spread of the coronavirus.”

Trump’s attacks appear to have struck a chord with Republican voters. Sixty-seven percent approved and 21 percent disapproved of the WHO’s handling of the coronavirus in an April 3-5 poll. But in the latest poll, 37 percent approve and 47 percent disapprove, marking a 56-point drop in net approval and putting the organization underwater with the GOP for the first time.

Two in 5 voters said they’d seen, read or heard “a lot” about Trump’s decision to halt funding to the WHO while his administration reviews the organization’s handling of the coronavirus pandemic, with little variance by party, according to a Morning Consult/Politico poll conducted April 18-19. The WHO’s net approval among independents has fallen 19 points since the beginning of April, though net approval among Democrats has stayed above 60 points since mid-March.

At the core of Trump’s criticism of the WHO is a jab at China: He’s called the organization “China-centric” and has sought to blame Beijing for the spread of COVID-19, referring to it as the “Chinese virus.” 

And news that American intelligence agencies were examining evidence that the coronavirus may have spread from a lab in Wuhan, China, broke through to Trump’s base: GOP voters were 13 points more likely than Democrats to say they’d heard “a lot” about it, 39 percent to 26 percent. Three in 10 registered voters said the same.

Since the beginning of April, the share of voters who say Beijing is the most to blame for the spread of coronavirus in the United States has increased 4 points, to 38 percent, and is up 9 points overall since the beginning of March. Republican voters have always been inclined to point the finger at China, but that also reached a new high of 60 percent in the latest poll.

While the vast majority of voters do not hold the WHO mainly responsible for the pandemic, the share who do has ticked up, from 3 percent at the beginning of the month to 6 percent in the latest poll.

Meanwhile, the share of voters who blame Trump for the spread of coronavirus has plateaued at 30 percent after increasing throughout March. In the latest survey, net approval on his handling of the U.S. response to the coronavirus is up 6 points from the previous week, with 48 percent approving and 46 percent disapproving.

A headshot photograph of Eli Yokley
Eli Yokley
U.S. Politics Analyst

Eli Yokley is Morning Consult’s U.S. politics analyst. Eli joined Morning Consult in 2016 from Roll Call, where he reported on House and Senate campaigns after five years of covering state-level politics in the Show Me State while studying at the University of Missouri in Columbia, including contributions to The New York Times, Politico and The Daily Beast. Follow him on Twitter @eyokley. Interested in connecting with Eli to discuss his analysis or for a media engagement or speaking opportunity? Email [email protected].

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