A group of conservative senators are fighting a last-ditch effort by retiring senator Bob Corker (R., Tenn.) and Sen. Bob Menendez (D., N.J.) to undermine President Trump’s choice to lead the nation’s taxpayer-funded global broadcasting operation, Michael Pack, before he steps into the role early next year, according to several Republican sources.
Joining the opposition is Rep. Ed Royce (R., Calif.), a 25-year veteran of the House who chairs the House Foreign Affairs Committee.
Royce, who will also leave Congress at the end of the year, has long backed major reforms to the U.S. Agency for Global Media (USAGM), which was formerly the Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG).
The bill’s opponents say that Voice of America Director Amanda Bennett and the current head of the USAGM, John Lansing, are behind the Menendez-Corker effort, which they argue would effectively “neuter” Trump’s incoming CEO.
Corker and Menendez are hoping to attach their bill to broader swift-moving legislation that must pass by the end of the year, such as the government funding or prison-reform measures.
However, several conservative senators are committed to stopping it, worried that it would prevent Pack from firing any top officials at the VOA and related agencies. That includes Bennett, the controversial current VOA director who is at the center of a fierce partisan battle over her leadership, GOP sources said.
The sources would not publicly disclose exactly which senators are committed to blocking the legislation.
A single senator could stop the bill by placing a hold on it, claiming the language is non-germane and preventing it from being attached to a larger legislative vehicle.
Royce also could play a critical role in sinking the USAGM measure by taking a tough stand against it being attached to another measure that is on an end-of-year fast-track.
The bill would make the current board members the members of the advisory board. The group is bipartisan but members were appointed by President Obama and many are operating on expired terms.
It also gives the board a veto in the hiring and firing of the VOA head and all other top officials of the related agencies, including Radio Free Asia, Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, the Middle East Broadcasting Network, and the Office of Cuba Broadcasting.
Amid the flurry of activity over the bill, Royce on Thursday met with the current head of the USAGM, John Lansing, who was appointed by President Obama and has remained in the position for two years of the Trump presidency.
The meeting was amicable, but Royce informed Lansing that he could not back a bill that would weaken the CEO position, a spokesman said.
“The chairman made clear today that he cannot support legislation that would result in backsliding at the USAGM,” a Foreign Affairs Committee spokesman told the Washington Free Beacon late last week. “An empowered CEO is critical to making U.S. international broadcasting more effective.”
Royce has tried to fix the agency, which he has described as “broken” and mismanaged, over the last several years. He has argued that the problems plaguing the now-USAGM have allowed the Russians and U.S. foes to gain the upper hand in the information-warfare sphere.
At the end of the Obama administration, Royce also authored legislation that tried to strengthen the CEO role. He pushed that bill through with the full backing of Lansing and Bennett in 2016 when they thought Hillary Clinton would win the presidency and they could stay onboard and continue their work.
Now Lansing, who will be replaced by Trump’s nominee, and Bennett are pushing reforms that will weaken the CEO, the bill’s detractors say.
“The people there now who are supporting Amanda Bennett are the same people who supported the measure in 2016 to keep her in place and give her more power,” one critic told the Free Beacon. “It’s Machiavellian in this way.”
The USAGM, which had a $680 million budget for fiscal year 2018, was created more than seven decades ago to counter propaganda from repressive regimes with coverage that promotes freedom and democracy world-wide.
Strategies to pursue that lofty goal without squandering taxpayer dollars have shifted with the agency’s changing leadership and has become a matter of extensive partisan debate over the last several years.
Pack is a documentary filmmaker who previously served as a Corporation for Public Broadcasting executive. More recently, he ran the conservative Claremont Institute and its Review of Books.
Bennett and her supporters on the left cite Pack’s ties to White House adviser Steve Bannon as cause for concern. The pair worked together on two documentaries, although colleagues have said Pack has had a much broader role in the conservative movement and would in no way be beholden to Bannon, especially after his falling out with Trump.
Pack also has spoken out against liberals having a politically correct “stranglehold” on colleges and universities, particularly film schools.
Under Pack’s direction, liberal critics openly worry that Trump officials could get too involved with USAGM operations, and it could become a mouthpiece for the administration, ruining its global reputation as an independent journalistic voice.
Those hoping for change at the top argue that Bennett is operating the VOA and its related agencies as a taxpayer-funded MSNBC with the coverage tilting far left and overtly anti-Trump.
A month before the presidential campaign, the BBG’s Ukrainian service posted online an unedited video, with subtitles and the VOA logo, of Robert De Niro unloading on Trump, calling him a “dog,” a “pig,” and a “con.” It was not part of a larger story, and the Ukrainian service removed it after criticism.
Bennett stoked additional partisan turmoil over the future of the USAGM and VOA when she wrote an op-ed in November taking Trump to task for suggesting in a tweet that the United States should create its own “worldwide network to show the World we really are — GREAT!”
Bennett placed the op-ed, in which she argued that the VOA helps “export the First Amendment” free from any administration meddling, in the Washington Post, the newspaper her husband previously owned.
The op-ed drew scorn from Sasha Gong, one of five employees of VOA’s Chinese language division whom Bennett placed on administration last fall for conducting a controversial interview with a prominent exiled Chinese dissident. Gong and others have argued that Bennett, who wrote book on a U.S. serviceman who joined the Communist Party in China after being imprisoned there for 16 years, was caving to pressure from the Chinese government.
Bennett late last month fired one of the five employees and suspended another involved in the controversial interview with the Chinese dissident after what she described as four lengthy, independent investigations into the matter.
The Free Beacon’s Bill Gertz first reported on the employees’ threatened firings.
After Bennett’s op-ed appeared, Mahtab Farid, an Iranian-American former VOA journalist, called it a “sad day for all of us who spent our entire life bring the truth.”
“If [sic] Washington Post allows this absolutely biased and fake opinion piece to be printed, there is no hope in journalism,” she wrote on her Facebook page. “Shame on #washingtonpost and shame on #voapnn. #Amanda Bennett truth is more important to holding on to your job.”
During the Obama administration, Office of Management and Budget officials tried to discontinue and defund broadcasts into the Ukraine and the Balkans two weeks before Russian President Putin invaded Crimea.
Others say the VOA and related agencies have become a safe landing pad for liberal-leaning journalists who have lost their jobs in recent years. They argue the liberal bias is entrenched that VOA reporters have posted profanity-laced anti-Trump posts to their personal Facebook pages, some accusing him of Nazi ties.
The internal turmoil, however, extends far beyond partisan differences.
In October, the VOA fired or disciplined 15 of its journalists after an internal investigation found they had accepted bribes passed to them by a Nigerian official.
“The bureaucrats are trying to keep their jobs and are conducting an orchestrated campaign to smear people and make claims while they are overseeing an agency that as experienced scandal after scandal,” one conservative critic said.
By Susan Crabtree