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Trump Ally At Voice of America Replaced By News Executive He Recently Demoted

The Biden administration is ousting Trump appointees at the Voice of America and its sister networks, which together reach 350 million people worldwide each week.
Caroline Brehman
CQ-Roll Call via Getty Images
The Biden administration is ousting Trump appointees at the Voice of America and its sister networks, which together reach 350 million people worldwide each week.

The Biden administration continued its swift sweep of the leadership at the Voice of America and its parent agency on Thursday. It pushed out VOA's director, a Trump ally named Robert R. Reilly who had been appointed just last month.

According to two people with knowledge, Reilly and his deputy, former State Department official Elizabeth Robbins, were escorted from the building. Robbins has told colleagues she is on "administrative leave."

Their patron, former U.S. Agency for Global Media CEO Michael Pack, resigned Wednesday at Biden's request after a stormy seven-month term in which he said he had to "drain the swamp" at VOA and USAGM. Some of Pack's loyalists who were still at the agency were trying as late as Thursday afternoon to force out the executives and senior VOA staff that Pack targeted, according to four people with knowledge.

"The continuing, vindictive pettiness of these people still is amazing," David Seide, an attorney who represented multiple VOA whistleblowers for the nonprofit Government Accountability Project, told NPR.

The new acting director of Voice of America is Yolanda Lopez, a veteran journalist who had led VOA's News Center until last week. On Jan. 12, Lopez was stripped of all editorial oversight of the English-language news hub after one of her White House reporters posed pointed questions to then-Secretary of State Mike Pompeo about his remarks, made after the presidential election, about a second Trump administration.

Reporter Patsy Widakuswara, who was demoted twice in 24 hours after the incident, approached Pompeo after he made a formal address and then shared the stage with Reilly at an event held at VOA's headquarters in Washington. She then challenged Reilly over failing to ask Pompeo any questions about the siege of Congress by a pro-Trump mob. Reilly barked at Widakuswara, "You obviously don't know how to behave." It then fell to Robbins, who had previously worked for Pompeo at the State Department, to tell the reporter she was done.

Beyond her appointment, the elevation of Lopez symbolizes Biden's effort to return the U.S. Agency for Global Media and the networks it oversees to their standing before Pack. The acting CEO of U.S. Agency for Global Media is Kelu Chao, a former top VOA news executive who had surfaced as a named whistleblower in a civil lawsuit against the agency.

Pack had instigated investigations against top USAGM executives and also against reporters within VOA for perceived anti-Trump bias. Chao said the investigations, led by political appointees of the parent agency, had made VOA's journalists "excessively cautious, slow to produce stories, and afraid to run down important stories and leads — particularly about politically sensitive topics, no matter how important."

"This has impacted Voice of America's coverage at a time when it is most needed," Chao said in a sworn court statement. "Particularly during a presidential election year."

The judge in the case ruled that Pack had broken the law and violated constitutional safeguards of free speech by interfering in independent news judgments.

VOA and its sister networks — which include Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, Radio Free Asia, the Middle East Broadcasting Networks and the Office of Cuba Broadcasting — reach more than 350 million people overseas each week. Their aim is to present rigorous news coverage in countries that do not have robust news organizations or that crack down on a free press. They are also supposed to embody American values by modeling what a free press looks like, through fair coverage of U.S. society and political debate.

Pack's pick as head of the Office of Cuba Broadcasting, Jeff Shapiro, also resigned. And according to five people with knowledge, the Biden administration also intends to replace the newly appointed heads of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, Radio Free Asia and the Middle Eastern networks. Those broadcasters are technically not-for-profit companies funded by the U.S. government.

Disclosure: This story was reported by NPR media correspondent David Folkenflik and edited by Emily Kopp, NPR tech and media editor. 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.

David Folkenflik was described by Geraldo Rivera of Fox News as "a really weak-kneed, backstabbing, sweaty-palmed reporter." Others have been kinder. The Columbia Journalism Review, for example, once gave him a "laurel" for reporting that immediately led the U.S. military to institute safety measures for journalists in Baghdad.