The top Republican on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee will not commit to a vote on the stalled nomination of President Trump’s choice to head the troubled U.S. Agency for Global Media, which oversees the Voice of America and related taxpayer-funded media outlets.
Trump nominated documentary filmmaker Michael Pack to head the USAGM in June 2018, and his nomination, along with others, has been languishing ever since as Democrats and anti-Trump Republican forces on Capitol Hill have blocked it.
“The other party is slow-walking these and he’s certainly one of them,” Sen. James Risch, who chairs the panel, told RealClearPolitics in a brief interview Thursday. “We’re moving them as quickly as we can, and I’m sure we’ll get to him in due course.”
Risch’s failure to schedule a vote comes as the USAGM has faced a series of embarrassing management failures and internal turmoil and currently lacks a leader. Meanwhile, conservative activists are ratcheting up the pressure on the Senate to move the long-stalled nomination. Several knowledgeable sources tell RCP that the White House wants Republicans to swiftly schedule votes and move the nomination.
John Lansing, who began serving as USAGM CEO and director in 2015, left that post in late September to head National Public Radio, and a federal judge on Friday sentenced one of his hand-selected top officials at USAGM to three months in federal prison after he pleaded guilty to stealing more than $40,000 from the agency.
Haroon Ullah, who served as Lansing’s chief strategic adviser, admitted to falsifying hotel invoices, taxi receipts and double-billing third party sponsors, as well as billing USAGM for personal trips to promote his book or for weekend getaways with little to no agency business.
Before his time at USAGM, Ullah had served in various State Department roles and had become known as an expert in countering ISIS’s and other terrorist groups’ propaganda. Late last year the House Foreign Affairs Committee concluded, after a three month investigation, that USAGM management must be strengthened in order to fix what the report deemed a “broken” agency beset by internal problems that have allowed the Russians and other U.S. adversaries to gain the upper hand in the information warfare sphere.
Previously known as the Broadcasting Board of Governors before it was rebranded last year, the USAGM was originally founded to counter propaganda from repressive regimes by providing a more independent, reliable source of news promoting “freedom and democracy” around the world, according to the agency’s website. But critics argue that the agency, which oversees VOA, Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, Radio Free Asia and has a $680 million annual budget, has lost its mission in a shifting global media and foreign policy environment and is in desperate need of reform after a recent spate of management scandals.
A late 2018 report by Stanford University’s Hoover Institution cited concerns about Chinese officials’ influence on American institutions, including specific details about China’s “charm offensive” and tougher tactics on Voice of America and Radio Free Asia employees working in China. The report cited what it called a “pattern” by VOA Mandarin Service of avoiding stories that could be perceived to be too tough on China and detailed activities by Chinese security officials it said amount to a “campaign of intimidation against some VOA and RFA staffers and their family members.”
Last fall, VOA put 15 employees on administrative leave from its Hausa radio service following allegations they accepted bribes from Nigerian officials. In another incident, a month before the 2016 U.S. presidential election, the BBG’s Ukrainian service posted online an unedited video of Robert De Niro calling Donald Trump a “dog,” a “pig,” and a “con.” The story was not part of a larger story, and the Ukrainian service removed it after criticism.
Over the last year and a half, Sen. Bob Menendez (pictured), the ranking Democrat on the foreign relations panel, has blocked progress on Pack’s nomination as he and other liberal critics, as well as anti-Trump Republican forces on Capitol Hill, voiced deep concern that the agency could become a megaphone for the administration. Pack’s supporters, who include such prominent conservatives as former U.S. Attorney General Ed Meese and former Heritage Foundation President Jim DeMint, say he is eminently qualified, citing his experience as the head of the Corporation for Public Broadcasting from 2003 to 2005, his service on the National Council of the Humanities and his co-chairmanship of the International TV Council.
Pack most recently served as president and CEO of the Claremont Institute, a conservative think tank, from 2015 to 2017. Last year, when his name started circulating in the press as a possible nominee to head the communications agency, critics aggressively mobilized against him, citing his ties to former White House adviser Steve Bannon.
The two worked together on two documentaries, and in 2017 Pack wrote an article for the Federalist praising Bannon, arguing that he could help break liberals’ “monopoly” on documentaries. He also jabbed at U.S. film schools, arguing that they are dedicated to “liberal indoctrination and grooming.”
“I have some bad news for this documentary establishment,” he wrote. “Trump, with Bannon’s help, campaigned against political correctness and self-dealing elites. And they won.”
Menendez, working with two GOP Trump foes, former Sens. Bob Corker and Jeff Flake, successfully prevented any action on Pack’s nomination for 16 months, even after Risch became chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee early this year after Corker’s retirement. In mid-September, Risch scheduled a confirmation hearing for Pack. In his opening statement, Pack vowed to protect journalistic integrity as a “bedrock principle” and support the independence of the agency’s reporters, even has he pledged to reform it and improve employee morale.
Menendez continued his delaying tactics, however, publicly noting that he had given Pack a list of questions he wanted answered, though the New Jersey Democrat did not disclose what those queries entailed. Menendez’ office did not return a RCP request for information on those questions and whether he was still strongly opposing the nomination.
As the year winds down, Pack’s supporters are growing increasingly impatient with these roadblocks, arguing that the Senate is squandering the chance to make much-needed changes to the agency that could bolster U.S. diplomacy and prevent the taxpayer-funded media outlets from continuing to mimic liberal attacks on the Trump administration in their coverage.
An umbrella group called the Conservative Action Project on Tuesday released a memo urging senators to “swiftly” confirm Pack. Sixty top conservative leaders signed it, including Meese, DeMint, and Kenneth Blackwell, a former Ohio secretary of state who also served as U.S. ambassador to the U.N. Commission on Human Rights.
“Pack is more than qualified to fulfill the mission of the BBG and to lead it with the experience and commitment he has demonstrated for decades,” they wrote. “His nomination has languished in the Senate for close to a year without explanation. We urge the Senate to swiftly confirm Michael Pack.”