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What’s behind Trump’s fresh push to wrest control of Voice of America

Conservative anger over China and the U.S. media find a convenient foil in Voice of America chief Amanda Bennett.

Donald Trump

Voice of America director Amanda Bennett seems, at first glance, to be the perfect target for a Donald Trump attack on the mainstream media: A former Philadelphia Inquirer editor, wife of ex-Washington Post owner Donald Graham and Barack Obama appointee, Bennett has strived to maintain VOA’s independence from the White House during the Trump era.

So when Trump and his aides began attacking VOA earlier this month, stirring up anger on the right, the broadcaster and its leader seemed like another shrewdly chosen foil for rallying his populist base against Washington elites. But since then, a deeper motive has emerged: Trump is using the dispute to demand the confirmation of conservative activist and filmmaker Michael Pack, a close associate of Steve Bannon, to head the U.S. Agency for Global Media, which oversees VOA.

Amid rising tensions with China, VOA’s coverage of coronavirus has reignited conservative discontent with the outlet’s editorial line under Bennett. The White House and conservative media have seized on coverage like a video of a light show celebrating the reopening of Wuhan, the city where the virus originated, and a graphic citing official Chinese Communist Party statistics that show a lower death toll in China than in the U.S.

"VOA should be leading the charge in exposing the exact timeline of the lies of the CCP concerning human-to-human transmission and community spread. Instead, we get Amanda Bennett,” Bannon told POLITICO. “She is a classic 'useful idiot' who kowtows to Beijing's Party Line.”

The vitriol from the right doesn’t sit well with mainstream journalists, who fear that Trump, through Pack, could transform VOA into a vehicle for his own brand of politics. The National Press Club issued a statement strongly backing Bennett, and citing VOA’s history of providing “accurate and unbiased” news to counter the lies of totalitarian regimes.

Michael Freedman, president of the National Press Club, said that VOA has produced exemplary reporting under Bennett. "Amanda is a respected journalist,” he said. “When you're providing accurate and fair information, somebody is going to be unhappy with it."

The independence of the federal government’s broadcast media for foreign audiences has been an issue for decades, dating back to the Cold War. Conservative activists have long sought to remake the U.S. Agency for Global Media, formerly known as the Broadcasting Board of Governors — with its annual budget of $750 million and a weekly audience of nearly 350 million people — in a more confrontational mold. Trump’s election renewed the issue, sparking speculation that he and Bannon would move quickly to turn Voice of America into full-throated, pro-Trump state TV.

But such changes have not come to pass, and as the White House looks again to advance its nominee, Democrats are pushing back against Pack, who served as president of the conservative Claremont Institute until 2017 and is the producer, most recently, of "Created Equal: Clarence Thomas in His Own Words.”

On Monday, Senate Foreign Relations Ranking Member Bob Menendez (D-N.J.) sent the White House a letter about Pack, saying his nomination remains tainted by unanswered questions about possible self-dealing during his time at Claremont and unresolved issues with the Internal Revenue Service over money from government grants to his non-profit that ended up being paid to his production company.

“Mr. Pack has acknowledged that he made false statements to the IRS, yet he has indicated that he has no intention of correcting the record,” Mendendez wrote to Chief of Staff Mark Meadows. “Does the White House agree that there is no need for Mr. Pack to provide accurate information or required disclosures to the IRS? If so, how did the White House arrive at this conclusion and does the IRS agree? Does this position apply only to Mr. Pack, or does it apply more broadly to Trump Administration nominees and other U.S. taxpayers?”

Pack did not respond to requests for comment. A person familiar with his nomination said he was following standard procedure for nominees by avoiding contact with the press.

In 2017, the White House settled on Pack as its pick to head the Broadcasting Board of Governors, which was renamed the U.S. Agency for Global Media the following year. In addition to VOA, the agency oversees the funding of Radio Free Europe and Radio Free Asia, which are privately incorporated but publicly funded and often take a more antagonistic stance than VOA does towards covering authoritarian regimes.

Pack, whom Bannon has described as his “mentor” in documentary filmmaking, has previously served on the Corporation for Public Broadcasting and the National Council on the Humanities, two other flashpoints for political fights over publicly funded cultural programming.

That culture war lens has had an enduring influence on his approach to media. "There's a lot of complaining sometimes on the right that there aren't documentaries like this,” he said of his Clarence Thomas film during a recent radio appearance. “But the left supports its documentary filmmakers and in that sense it deserves to own the culture because it shows up for it."

Trump formally put Pack forward in 2018, but his nomination languished in the Senate, in large part due to a lack of enthusiasm from Republicans on Capitol Hill. Former Tennessee Sen. Bob Corker, who chaired the Foreign Relations Committee at the time and was one of few Senate Republicans to openly defy Trump, showed little interest in moving Pack’s nomination.

Corker’s replacement as chairman, James Risch of Idaho, is a more reliable ally of Trump’s, and support from conservative activists has rekindled Pack’s nomination in recent months. In September, Pack got a hearing, but since then, his nomination has again stalled as he has jousted with Menendez over questions related to his taxes and his tenure at Claremont.

In November, a group that included former Attorney General Ed Meese, Family Research Council President Tony Perkins, former South Carolina Sen. Jim DeMint, and Justice Thomas’s wife, Ginni Thomas, signed an open letter in support of Pack.

Per Senate rules, Pack’s nomination was sent back to the White House in January, which re-submitted it on February 25. By the time Pack had sent in his paperwork in March, coronavirus had brought Senate proceedings to a halt.

It is expected Pack would fire Bennett if confirmed. For some Hill Republicans who remain lukewarm on Pack, the drawn-out nomination fight has already diminished his chances of successfully remaking VOA in a more hawkish image.

“Trumpworld has known about [Bennett] since the transition but they didn’t care because they didn’t think VOA mattered,” said a congressional Republican aide. “Now they have a problem because she had four years to install her people at every level and she’s going to absolutely steamroll Pack. From day one everything he sees and hears is going to be prebaked. He doesn’t have a chance.”

VOA’s coverage of China under Bennett had been drawing fire from the right at least as early as 2018, when Stanford University’s conservative Hoover Institution relayed complaints of “a pattern of avoiding stories that could be perceived to be too tough on China” in a lengthy report on Chinese influence in the U.S.

Amid the coronavirus crisis, the White House has seized again on VOA’s China coverage and Pack’s nomination to oversee it.

Behind the scenes, White House Chief Digital Officer Ory Rinat — who worked at the Heritage Foundation and is aligned with many of Pack’s movement conservative supporters — has been active in pushing for change at the government’s broadcasters.

On April 10, Rinat’s office blasted Voice of America in the White House’s “1600 Daily” newsletter, writing, “VOA too often speaks for America’s adversaries—not its citizens.”

The day before, White House Social Media Director Dan Scavino had taken issue with VOA’s coverage of a light show marking the end of the lockdown in Wuhan, the Chinese city where the coronavirus outbreak began. “American taxpayers—paying for China’s very own propaganda, via the U.S. Government funded Voice of America! DISGRACE!!” Scavino tweeted.

Bennett issued a lengthy response, pointing to VOA’s critical coverage of China’s coronavirus response and saying, “One of the big differences between publicly-funded independent media, like the Voice of America, and state-controlled media is that we are free to show all sides of an issue and are actually mandated to do so by law as stated in the VOA Charter signed by President Gerald Ford in 1976.”

White House Deputy Press Secretary Hogan Gidley did not respond to a request for comment.

Bennett did not respond to requests for comment and VOA’s press office declined to make her available for an interview.

Bennett’s husband Don Graham, whose Graham Holdings sold the Washington Post to Jeff Bezos in 2013, has taken to defending her on his personal Facebook page, appealing to taxpayers.

“You, through your tax payments, have built up a worldwide broadcasting organization with considerable worldwide credibility. And now we have a chance to throw it away,” he wrote, in addition to authoring a lengthy post about Bennett’s work as an editor at Bloomberg News in exposing the riches of Chinese President Xi Jinping’s family.

“She has been a truthful reporter and editor,” he wrote, “willing to stand up to the Chinese government (as the family of Xi Jinping will attest), at Bloomberg and at VOA.”

Daniel Lippman contributed to this report.

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