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Trump global media chief faces GOP backlash over firings

Matthew Lee
Associated Press

Washington – The new chief of U.S.-funded global media is facing a conservative backlash over his decision to fire the heads of two international broadcasters, adding to concerns about the direction of the agency, which oversees the Voice of America and other outlets.

The criticism of Michael Pack is unusual because it’s coming from supporters of President Donald Trump who had backed his controversial nomination to run the U.S. Agency for Global Media over staunch Democratic objections.

The Voice of America building, Monday, June 15, 2020, in Washington.

Trump allies, including former adviser Sebastian Gorka, have offered public support for the ousted head of the Middle East Broadcasting Networks, Alberto Fernandez, while others have taken issue with the firing of the head of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, Jamie Fly.

Pack, a conservative filmmaker and one-time associate of Trump adviser Steve Bannon, sacked both of them late Wednesday in a purge of USAGM’s outlets, which also include Radio Free Asia and the Cuba-focused Radio/TV Marti. Those moves have alarmed Democrats who fear Pack intends to turn the agency into a Trump administration propaganda machine.

There was no public explanation of why Pack would dismiss any of the officials, let alone those favored by conservatives. Neither Pack, his chief of staff, nor his spokesman immediately responded to requests for comment.

The firing of Fernandez, in particular, has raised conservative hackles. A former career diplomat, Fernandez had been hailed by conservatives for bringing what they saw as balance to the Arabic-language outlets AlHurra television and Radio Sawa.

“Ambassador Fernandez was the greatest asset America had in foreign broadcasting,” Gorka wrote on Twitter shortly after the dismissals became public.

Michael Doran, a former National Security Council and State Department official during President George W. Bush’s administration, called Fernandez’s ouster “asinine” and said that without him “Pack will be as effective as a drugged bug in a bottle.”

David Reaboi, a noted conservative national security analyst who used to work at Pack’s former employer, California’s Claremont Institute, was even more critical, calling Fernandez’s removal “shameful.”

“Michael Pack gets confirmed by the Senate and, rather than take stock and talk to people who know what’s happening, he fired everybody,” he wrote. “Michael Pack destroyed that because he was too dumb to listen – or too dumb to be able to figure out the difference between friends and enemies.”

The dismissal of Fly, a former staffer for Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., also attracted criticism, including from Mark Dubowitz, a well-known advocate of the Trump administration’s hawkish policies on Iran. “Poor decision to fire (Fernandez) and (Fly) whose whose exemplary leadership of MBN and RFE/RL respectively, made America’s public diplomacy more effective, more persuasive and more consistent with American interests and values,” he wrote.

Juan Zarate, a Republican former NSC and Treasury staffer, agreed, calling the two dismissals “incomprehensible.” “I’ve watched both for years work with integrity to promote US interests abroad,” he wrote.

In addition to Fernandez and Fly, Pack also removed the head of Radio Free Asia, Bay Fang, and the acting chief of the Office of Cuba Broadcasting on Wednesday. He also replaced each outlet’s corporate board of directors and replaced them with allies, installing himself as chairman of each.

The firings came after Pack had tried to allay mounting concerns about his intentions at the agency in an email to staff in which he said he is “committed to maintaining the agency’s independence and adhering to VOA’s charter and the principles.”

The director and deputy director of the Voice of America, Amanda Bennett and Sandy Sugawara, resigned from their positions on Monday.

The top Democrat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Sen. Bob Menendez of New Jersey, denounced the firings as an “egregious breach” of the agency’s mission. Menendez had led an unsuccessful fight to block or at least delay Pack’s confirmation.