Speculation from early in the Trump administration that the new president would seek to put his own imprint on the government’s international broadcasting may be borne out.
On Tuesday, Rep. Eliot Engel, D-N.Y., ranking member of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, wrote to the Broadcasting Board of Governors warning that whistleblowers have reported that Trump “plans to circumvent the law and replace the top official at America’s international-broadcasting agency with a candidate who will steer American-funded journalism toward a pro-Trump bias.”
The BBG, which runs the Voice of America, Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty and Radio Free Asia, “must not become a propaganda outlet,” Engel wrote.
John Lansing, a veteran private-sector TV news executive who has been the BBG’s CEO since 2015, was not confirmed by the Senate. A law passed in 2016 requires the White House to nominate a successor to be voted on by the Senate, Engel said.
“The president can’t replace the CEO,” the letter said. “He can’t appoint an interim replacement to fire the rest of you. And if Mr. Lansing leaves his position before a Senate-confirmed successor is in place, it’s up to the Board of Governors to appoint a new one. Congress wrote these laws. They must be followed.”
Engel’s move was prompted by word of an alleged plot by two senior BBG officials and a White House personnel official to remove Lansing by the end of March. He would be replaced by BBG Chief Technology Officer and acting Director of the Office of Cuba Broadcasting André Mendes, according to the scenario.
The White House’s hope, according to Engel, is to replace senior BBG journalists with “individuals who will help advance the Trump administration’s agenda—a clear violation of the statutory ‘firewall’ separating BBG management and journalists.” The BBG’s authority to appoint its own interim successor was confirmed by a Justice Department memorandum last year, Engel added in the letter copied to State Department Inspector General Steve Linick.
Engel called the possibility “a shocking abuse of authority” and said it “would reveal an effort by this administration to turn the BBG into a propaganda machine.”
The whistleblowers apparently came forward after Mendes addressed a meeting of the Board of Governors on March 14, in advance of his planned March 30 departure from the BBG for another job at the Commerce Department, the letter said.
“Mendes expressed his dissatisfaction that he was not made CEO during the last vacancy in 2015. He underscored his disagreements with BBG management under Mr. Lansing as well as with the heads of the various BBG entities,” Engel wrote. “I have learned from multiple sources that in fact, Mr. Mendes has been plotting with BBG Senior Adviser and former Breitbart contributor Jeffrey Shapiro and Associate Director of Presidential Personnel Jennifer Locetta to assume leadership of the agency prior to his announced departure. They have allegedly prepared a memorandum for the White House outlining this scheme.”
House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Rep. Ed Royce, R-Calif., said in a statement: “For years, mismanagement crippled our international broadcasting, allowing Putin to grab the upper hand. That’s why I authored legislation to replace the part-time BBG board with a CEO empowered to make changes necessary to effectively counter propaganda from Russia and others with timely, accurate information. I look forward to seeing the next step taken in this reform process upon confirmation of a permanent CEO.”
Neither the BBG nor the White House responded to inquiries by publication time on a day when Washington is snowbound.
This story has been updated with a statement from Rep. Ed Royce, R-Calif.