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USAGM Chief Fires Trump Allies Over Radio Free Europe And Other Networks

The acting head of the U.S. Agency for Global Media has fired the presidents and boards of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, Radio Free Asia and the Middle East Broadcasting Networks. Above, the headquarters of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty is seen in Prague in January 2010.
The acting head of the U.S. Agency for Global Media has fired the presidents and boards of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, Radio Free Asia and the Middle East Broadcasting Networks. Above, the headquarters of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty is seen in Prague in January 2010.

Updated Saturday at 1:23 p.m. ET

The acting CEO of the U.S. Agency for Global Media continued her sweep of federally funded international broadcasters to remove leaders linked to former President Donald Trump.

On Friday evening, Kelu Chao fired the recently appointed presidents and boards of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, Radio Free Asia and the Middle East Broadcasting Networks named by her predecessor, Trump loyalist Michael Pack. Over his seven months in office, Pack had embarked on a scorched-earth assault on the agency's broadcast networks, telling conservative media outlets he needed to "drain the swamp" and that its newsrooms were overrun with anti-Trump journalists.

The firings were described by several people with knowledge of the actions and in materials reviewed by NPR. USAGM had no comment.

Unlike Voice of America and the Office of Cuba Broadcasting — which are owned by the federal government — the broadcast networks at the center of the firings are technically private not-for-profit networks funded by USAGM.

Radio Free Europe's Ted Lipien, Radio Free Asia's Stephen J. Yates and Victoria Coates of the Middle East Broadcasting Network were appointed by Pack in late December. (Coates' dismissal was first reported by Politico.)

Lipien was a former acting associate director of VOA and longtime international broadcaster who became a sharp critic of USAGM, VOA and the other affiliated networks on a pair of blogs. Of the three network presidents affected, he was the only one without established partisan ties.

Yates, a former Idaho GOP chairman, had registered as a lobbyist for the Taiwanese government in early December, and was first contacted by Pack's team for the job one day before his appointment was announced. Coates had been deputy national security adviser under Trump.

At the same time, Pack stocked their boards with right-wing ideologues and Trump apologists. New board member Roger L. Simon wrote in his column for the conspiracy-retailing and Trump-supporting Epoch Times that the boards would never give in to pressure from Biden officials.

The boards also included a conservative talk show host with previous experience at USAGM's predecessor agency, the maker of a 2020 pro-Trump documentary called "The Plot Against the President," an activist lawyer with the conservative evangelical outfit Liberty Counsel and a former State Department adviser in the Trump administration.

Pack resigned under pressure from the Biden team just two hours after the new president took office. Chao forced out Voice of America's director, Robert Reilly, and his deputy, former State Department official Elizabeth Robbins, on her first day in the CEO job. Each had also been appointed by Pack in December.

It is unclear whether Chao's actions will be subject to legal challenges. Attorneys for Radio Free Asia were contesting Chao's authority to fire Yates; language in the recently passed defense authorization bill gave the CEO several weeks to make such moves before more stringent protections kick in. RFA appeared to be challenging both Chao's powers and timing.

Pack's appointees as network presidents each signed contracts with USAGM that seemingly made it impossible for board members to be removed for the next two years - absent conviction of a crime - and to allow them to be removed for the subsequent two years only for cause.

Officials at Radio Free Europe pushed back, arguing that locking those boards would politicize the network. In Lipien's previous public remarks, he said he had sought to ensure RFE/RL's ability to cover human rights matters. During a conference call with his staff, he said he had to accept the contract in order to ensure the continued flow of funds for January and February. Lipien said the network would have run out of money in February without the USAGM contract, according to an audio recording of the call reviewed by NPR. His colleagues argued they might be able to last through Biden's arrival in office.

Lipien declined comment on his firing to NPR. Yates could not be reached for comment. Pack could also not be reached for comment.

In a statement to Politico, Coates warned the Biden administration against playing politics with the agency.

"This is a shocking repudiation of President Biden's call for unity and reconciliation just two days ago — and a clear violation of MBN's grant and my employment contracts," Coates said in a statement.

Former USAGM general counsel David Kligerman, who resigned in December after having been suspended by Pack months earlier, argues Chao was undoing unlawful actions by Pack.

"The Agency had no choice here. It was a necessary act to immediately [to] reverse the attempt to literally steal these essentially government corporations that the Congress funds to the tune of perhaps a quarter of a billion dollars a year," Kligerman tells NPR. "Think of the outcry if, on his way out the door, Trump attempted to lock the government out of Fannie Mae or Freddie Mac, or Amtrak — to take control away from the U.S. taxpayers and hand complete, unchecked control to a group of political loyalists."

Soon after taking office Pack launched an assault on the agency, seeking to fire top executives, replacing network chiefs and instigating investigations of reporters and editors for bias. He was rebuked by federal watchdogs and two judges, who ruled his actions illegal and, in one case, unconstitutional. Pack argued the rulings were mistaken.

Through his actions and words, Pack sought to cast aside longstanding policy and law protecting the networks' newsrooms from political interference from above. His actions outraged lawmakers from both major parties. Most recently, the top Democrat and Republican on the House Foreign Affairs Committee protested after VOA White House reporter Patsy Widakuswara was demoted and her editor reassigned over her questions to then Secretary of State Mike Pompeo about his recent statements of support for Trump.

Widakuswara was restored to her job Friday morning. Her editor, Yolanda Lopez, who had been relieved over her job as a senior news leader, was made acting director of Voice of America.

On Friday, Chao wrote a memo for all USAGM staff shared by Lipien with Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty in which she invoked the importance of that protection, called a firewall.

"We have a lot of work ahead of us: reaffirm the firewall, the highest standards of professionalism, and the sacred editorial independence and journalistic integrity; and ensure the safety and security of our journalists," Chao wrote in the memo, obtained by NPR.

Notably, Chao did not once invoke Lipien's name or those of the presidents of the other not-for-profit networks. Several hours later, she fired them.

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.