Trumpism At Voice Of America: Firings, Foosball And A Conspiracy Theory
One way to understand the capricious nature of life at Voice of America and its federal parent agency over the last seven months would have been to witness two men standing across a foosball table from each other, twisting knobs and shouting in the empty cubicles of the Spanish-language service.
Every day last summer, a senior agency adviser, Dan Hanlon, and an aide spent hours playing in offices abandoned for the pandemic. Their new CEO, Michael Pack, had sidelined them almost immediately after his arrival in June, telling others they were disloyal and untrustworthy.
"It was actually one of the most surreal times of my career in federal government," said Hanlon, who was a top aide to President Donald Trump's chief of staff when the White House assigned him to the agency. "Since they weren't talking to us, we would come in at nine o'clock and stamp out at five o'clock. And we played foosball all day. And we would just sit there, commenting about how absurd this whole thing was."
Pack, Trump's choice to lead the U.S. Agency for Global Media, had assured senators considering his confirmation that he believed in the importance of the independent news coverage provided by Voice of America and its sister networks overseen by the agency.
Instead, Pack's seven-month tenure offered a near-perfect encapsulation of Trumpism. Once confirmed by the Senate, Pack announced his charge was "to drain the swamp, to root out corruption, and to deal with these issues of [anti-Trump] bias," as he put it on The Federalist Radio Hour, a conservative podcast. Pack obsessed over staff loyalty, embraced conspiracy theories and refused to allow visa extensions for his foreign journalists.
In short, he proceeded to wage ideological warfare on his own agency.
"I don't think he had a plan other than to just blow the place up," Hanlon now says.
"I have dealt with federal agencies for almost 30 years, through both Democrat and Republican leadership," said Mark S. Zaid, an attorney who has been representing several USAGM and VOA senior leaders who filed formal whistleblower complaints against Pack. "I have never encountered as many senior political officials to be so petty, vindictive, arrogant, egotistical and mean-spirited, epitomizing the worst of Trump, as I did since Michael Pack arrived at USAGM as CEO."
Pack has inspired multiple formal investigations and rebukes from federal and District of Columbia judges. They've found that he has acted illegally and even unconstitutionally. In fact, so many scandals and so much controversy clouded Pack's short tenure that it's easy forget the human toll: executives fired, reporters investigated, reputations shattered. The accounts of three former USAGM employees shed an unusual light on the cost.
"Everybody knew if there is any mistake, they would be out of a job — from the lowest staff to the managers," said Benazir Samad, a former digital strategist for Voice of America's Urdu-language service. She speaks from experience: Soon after Pack accused the Urdu service of anti-Trump bias, her work contract was canceled.
Pack resigned under pressure last week just two hours after President Biden took the oath of office. The new administration replaced him on an acting basis by a veteran of VOA, Kelu Chao. (Pack declined to be interviewed by NPR during his final days in office and has not responded to requests for comment since.)
Voice of America and other international broadcasters funded by the federal government are banned by law from beaming their reports to the U.S. Their intent is to provide credible news coverage overseas for nations that do not have an independent or free press. That includes news about American political and social debates. In so doing, the networks model American democratic values for an overseas audience of more than 350 million people each week.
"USAGM and the CEO position are meant to be non-partisan," Pack wrote in his resignation letter. "As such, every single day, I was solely focused upon reorienting the agency toward its mission. I sought, above all, to help the agency share America's story with the world objectively and without bias."
During Pack's tenure, NPR spoke to more than 60 people who work or have worked for USAGM and its networks. Outside his own hand-picked team, very few took Pack at his parting words.
A Trump aide's loyalty questioned
Dan Hanlon is a South Carolina Republican. He had worked for the federal government for a more than a decade when he joined the Trump transition team in late 2016. Hanlon stayed on after Trump entered the White House, becoming a senior aide to Mick Mulvaney when the latter was the director of the Office of Management and Budget and again when Mulvaney became acting White House chief of staff.
Hanlon considered himself dedicated to the success of Trump administration. In early 2020, the White House assigned him to USAGM to help the acting CEO, Grant Turner, work more smoothly with the administration.
Pack, a conservative filmmaker who had partnered with former Trump strategist Steve Bannon, was first nominated in spring 2018. But his nomination had stirred such apprehension on Capitol Hill — among Republicans and Democrats — that it languished. Once Pack's nomination was revived in spring 2020, it fell to Hanlon to get Pack on board and up to speed.
Hanlon says Pack made it clear he mistrusted those who were already at the agency, but Hanlon assumed Pack would not doubt his loyalty. He was wrong. Pack held Hanlon at arm's-length during the nominating process and iced him out almost instantly after taking office. Hanlon and his aide, Logan McVey, went on to work at the Department of Housing and Urban Development. Both men say Pack's inner circle prevented Hanlon from receiving his federal pay for months at HUD — an assertion backed up by screen grabs of his online payroll records.
Pack also quickly fired the presidents of all the networks, except Voice of America. (Its two top officials resigned.) He fired former NBC News president Steve Capus, a senior adviser at the agency. Pack suspended six top agency executives and paid private law firms millions of dollars to investigate them. And he refused to extend visas for any foreign staffers — implying, without any evidence, that they could be spies.
"These were good people. They were there, excited to do this mission," says Hanlon, now deputy chief of staff for U.S. Rep. Nancy Mace, R-S.C. "And Mr. Pack, by and large, never talked to them. And that's a shame. He never got that. He never got that pride that those people had in their job because he just didn't trust them and wouldn't talk to them."
Among those executives suspended was the agency's general counsel, David Kligerman. He had been an attorney at the U.S. State Department in the Obama administration before joining USAGM.
Pack "believed we were disloyal to him and he had perceived us as being... part of this cabal," Kligerman says. "And it was very troubling."
Kligerman says he was drawn to the agency because of the importance of the role that the media can play in promoting American interests by making sure foreign nations have accurate and credible information.
"A trusted news source needs to tell the news," Kligerman says from his home in Washington, D.C. "It is the good, the bad and the ugly. And that's what we do. But as a result, a lot of folks around the world not only get to understand the truth but have a profound respect for the United States because of our commitment to telling the truth."
Reporting for the networks can come at significant professional and personal risk, especially for foreign staff. In Belarus, six Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty staffers were recently jailed while covering the anti-government movement there. In Russia, President Vladimir Putin is targeting their colleagues ever more intently. And in North Korea, Radio Free Asia's reports are seen as such a threat to Kim Jong Un's dictatorship that a fishing fleet owner was executed in front of a crew of 100 after acknowledging that he had been listening to the broadcaster's reports for 15 years.
Instead of supporting that mission, Kligerman argues, Pack embraced Trump's twin fights against the media and against career government employees.
"At one point, he even quoted Leviticus to me, a provision that talked about, you know, bearing false witness," says Kligerman, who resigned in December after months in limbo. "You have to stand up to bad actors, like my colleagues and I have done. And we've paid the price for it."
As Pack suspended the executives, citing what he characterized as grave lapses in security over hiring processes, he also contracted with a private law firm — at taxpayer expense — to investigate them. Costs have exceeded $3 million for a task usually left to government lawyers and investigators, according to whistleblower complaints. When Pack moved to fire the executives late last year, his formal letters did not cite the security concerns, according to four people who have read them. (The Washington Post revealed that Pack paid another private law firm more than a million dollars for a parallel investigation of how he could fire leaders and boards of several of the networks and a technology fund subsidized by the agency that are technically nonprofit corporations.)
Lost jobs put immigrant workers' visas in danger
Among the initiatives Kligerman opposed was a decision to withhold visa extensions for staffers who were citizens of foreign countries. As their J-1 visas expired, some had to return to countries run by leaders who viewed their work for the U.S.-funded broadcasters with hostility. "What he has really done is a profound betrayal of these folks," Kligerman says.
NPR has reviewed internal VOA materials reflecting that as of Dec. 1, 23 VOA employees and contractors lost their positions because Pack refused to authorize extensions or sponsor a change in their immigration status. Another 25 will lose their visas by the end of February unless new leaders act.
Benazir Samad was among those working for Voice of America on a J-1 visa. She came to the U.S. from Pakistan on a Fulbright journalism fellowship and studied at Arizona State University's Cronkite School.
She was hired at VOA as a freelancer in June 2019 and became a full-time contractor that November. (She also wrote a half-dozen posts on a freelance basis for NPR in 2019 and 2020.) She worked for the Urdu-language service, which is focused on Pakistan, although authorities there try to block its broadcasts.
Along with three colleagues, Samad lost her contract this summer. Their editor was suspended. The offense: a segment about the Biden campaign's outreach to Muslim voters. (Pakistan is overwhelmingly Muslim.) The VOA segment was based on an Associated Press story about a specific event in which Trump did not participate. The story did not contain countervailing material about Trump's efforts, which were relatively sparse, to appeal to Muslims.
Starting in July, Pack claimed the VOA Urdu segment proved a bias in favor of Biden over Trump.
"It was essentially a repackaged Biden ad," Pack told Fox News' Shannon Bream on Jan. 18, just two days before his resignation. "It was not targeted as the Urdu service was supposed to be to Pakistan, but really to Michigan and to appeal to Michigan Muslims to flip the state for Biden."
VOA staffers tell NPR that Pack's accusation is ridiculous. Very few people in the U.S. consume or even know of its coverage. VOA Urdu blocks social media promotion of its coverage within the U.S.
Biden won Michigan by more than 150,000 votes in November. According to the latest estimates by the U.S. Census Bureau, there are only 15,000 Michiganders who speak Urdu — and that includes all people over the age of 5.
While Trump won by a razor-thin margin in 2016, these journalists say the idea that a brief segment in Urdu on a service designed not to be viewed in the U.S. would have swayed voters is deluded or disingenuous.
The accusation nonetheless led to an investigation by one of Pack's top aides at USAGM, a partisan lawyer, and to the firings.
"We were fired because they thought it was, you know, against — it was, like, biased towards Trump," Samad says. "So then everyone was so cautious over anything related to Trump's campaign or anything related to the elections."
Kelu Chao, a top news executive over VOA at the time, made many of the same claims in a sworn statement in a whistleblower's civil suit filed against Pack last year. She was picked by the Biden team to be the new acting CEO of USAGM.
Others have had their fortunes restored in the past week. White House reporter Patsy Widakuswara, demoted twice in two days after asking then-Secretary of State Mike Pompeo pointed questions about Trump, got her job back. A key editor, Yolanda Lopez, was stripped of authority over the newsroom after the Widakuswara incident. She was made the acting head of VOA itself. Kligerman is said to be being considered for a new job at USAGM.
As for Samad, she is appealing her dismissal to a governmental review board. Samad said she relied on a written promise from USAGM, viewed by NPR, that her contract would be extended into 2021.
"It is very crucial for me," Samad says. "This wrongful termination has not only adversely affected my life and professional career, but it has threatened to turn my entire life upside down permanently through not a fault of my own. So I'm very worried about my visa situation, my job and everything."
Disclosure: This story was reported by NPR media correspondent David Folkenflik and edited by NPR media and tech editor Emily Kopp. Because of NPR CEO John Lansing's prior role as CEO of the U.S. Agency for Global Media, no senior news executive or corporate executive at NPR reviewed this story before it was published.
Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.