Fear of a Coup at Broadcasting Board of Governors

Employees fear the Breitbartization of U.S.-government funded international media outlets

By Robbie Gramer, a diplomacy and national security reporter at Foreign Policy.
Steve Bannon, former White House chief strategist, speaks during a discussion on countering violent extremism in Washington on Oct. 23, 2017. (Drew Angerer/Getty Images)
Steve Bannon, former White House chief strategist, speaks during a discussion on countering violent extremism in Washington on Oct. 23, 2017. (Drew Angerer/Getty Images)

Employees at the Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG), a U.S. government-supported international media arm, are sounding alarm bells of a “coup attempt” behind closed doors to install new leaders allied with Steve Bannon, the right-wing firebrand and former White House strategist.

André Mendes, a longtime BBG official, and Jeffrey Shapiro, a former Breitbart contributor-turned-senior advisor to the BBG, conspired to oust the current leadership, four current and former BBG officials say. The plan, they contend, is to stack the top with ideologues aligned with President Donald Trump and to dissolve the BBG board, with expectations that the White House would nominate Mendes as the new CEO.

A White House spokesperson says they do not comment on personnel issues and have no announcements at this time.

Employees fear that if the move is carried out, it could undermine the independent and fact-based reporting of the outlets under the BBG, including Voice of America (VOA), Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE/RL), the Office of Cuba Broadcasting (OCB), Radio Free Asia, and the Middle East Broadcasting Networks.

“They’re planning a blatant power grab,” one BBG official says.

Mendes, in an interview with Foreign Policy, sharply disputes this narrative and says employees are lying and stoking a “culture of fear” to try to push him out. Mendes, who is leaving the BBG in the coming weeks for a job at the Commerce Department, says the White House may be mulling plans to nominate him as CEO, but he insists he never formally announced this, contrary to what other employees have said.

He says accusations that he is secretly scheming with Shapiro and plans to sack top BBG executives is “totally and completely false.” He adds that BBG employees who spoke to FP were trying to “create an environment of fear … to protect their own jobs.”

Amid the he-said, she-said sparring, top Democratic lawmakers also threw their weight in the fight. Sen. Bob Menendez, the ranking Democrat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said on Tuesday: “We are just starting to learn about disturbing efforts to purge the Broadcasting Board of Governors and impose a partisan editorial voice on U.S. international media.”

Rep. Eliot Engel, the top Democrat on the House Foreign Affairs Committee, wrote a letter released Wednesday morning warning against such a move, saying only the board, not the U.S. president, could appoint a new interim CEO under current law. “This action would violate current law and represent what these whistleblowers have described as ‘a coup at the BBG,’ presumably with the aim of pushing the BBG’s journalism toward a viewpoint favorable of the Trump Administration,” Engel wrote in the letter. “I view these claims as credible and this scenario as outrageous and unacceptable.”

These comments are “just a campaign to instill fear,” Mendes says in response by email. “I have never heard anything whatsoever about changing editorial lines at the BBG. Never been involved in a conversation that would intimate any deviation from a mandated journalistic objectivity.”

The BBG networks reach 278 million people around the world in 61 languages and more than 100 countries, according to the BBG’s own figures. Employees describe the current CEO, John Lansing, as well-respected but says there’s friction between him, Mendes, and Shapiro.

The political dust-up at the BBG appears to have started at a closed-door meeting between Mendes and the board last week, where Mendes says he outlined his grievances with the BBG’s current management.

During the presentation, Mendes says, he told the board that “there have been unbelievable errors committed by this management” and that it was his duty to “call out waste, fraud, and abuse” of taxpayer money.

The presentation vexed employees who were later briefed on the meeting, who saw it as the first step by Mendes to put himself forth as the front-runner to be the new CEO.

Several board members present at the meeting did not respond to FP’s requests for comment.

“It’s just so weird,” one BBG employee says. “He told people he is orchestrating this coup before it even happens.”

Employees had for more than a year thought the Trump White House would orchestrate sweeping change to the government media arm, fearing Shapiro and Mendes had designs to turn it into a propaganda tool for the administration — a concern some outside experts dismiss as alarmist.

But Shapiro has a divisive history with the BBG. Last year, Shapiro reportedly told colleagues that he wanted to transform the agency into a “Bannon legacy.” In October 2017, the Daily Beast reported that Shapiro was convinced senior officials at the BBG secretly collaborated with Raúl Castro’s regime in Cuba and sent his suspicions to the FBI, charges most BBG officials rebuff.

Shapiro did not respond to FP’s request for comment.

Mendes disputes the notion that Shapiro reported concerns about the possible collaboration with the Castro regime. The story was “planted” by VOA and OCB management to discredit Shapiro, he says.

Asked if he believed the OCB secretly collaborated with the Castro regime, Mendes says: “I have no proof whatsoever of that, but I do have several situations where steps that were taken gave me great pause.”

Thomas Hill, a Brookings Institution expert and former congressional staffer who worked on the legislative reform under House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Ed Royce, dismisses concerns that the BBG or the outlets under it could transform into an arm of pro-Trump propaganda.

“That is preposterous,” Hill says. He adds that the CEO position has no editorial oversight. Even if it were the aim of the administration to redefine VOA and affiliated outlets, Hill says, it is too large an organization, full of traditional journalists and editors, to turn overnight into any form of a pro-Trump propaganda outlet.

“It would be akin to saying, ‘Oh, Jeff Bezos bought the Washington Post, ergo all the Washington Post will be doing is Amazon puff pieces now,’” Hill says.

But employees fear that the new CEO could still influence the media outlets under the BBG, just as the agency hits its stride on badly needed internal reforms related to personnel, programming, and long-term strategy.

Several employees say they fear that a new Trump appointee could ax Current Time, a Russian-language media outlet stood up by RFE/RL and VOA to counter Russian disinformation in Russia and Europe. Employees point to the network as an effective way to counter Russian government-funded outlets such as RT and Sputnik, which offer a fuzzy mix of news and propaganda.

Mendes says if he ever became CEO of the BBG, a role he held in an interim capacity under President Barack Obama, he would strengthen Current Time, not scrap it. Lansing, the current CEO, “is extremely good at taking credit for Current Time,” Mendes says, “but … I wrote the proposal for Current Time.”

“If anything, I would strengthen Current Time,” he adds.

Board members expect their roles to dissolve eventually; it’s written into U.S. law. Buried in section 1288 of the 2017 National Defense Authorization Act, passed under Obama, is a mandate to create a new CEO position that consolidates BBG authority, dissolves the existing board, and creates a new board with only an advisory role.

At the time, the legislation received wide bipartisan support, Hill says, as a way to streamline and fix the BBG’s leadership and decision-making structures.

While the legislation passed, it has yet to be enacted because Trump has not formally nominated a new CEO. Such a nomination requires Senate confirmation. Until then, only the board can appoint a new interim CEO, Engel makes clear in his letter.

On Tuesday night, as the sparring reached a head, Lansing sent an email, obtained by FP, to employees announcing Mendes would be moving on to a new job at the Commerce Department.

“Please join me in thanking Andre for his tireless service and devotion to the mission of the BBG, and in wishing him well as he moves to the next phase in his successful career,” Lansing wrote.

Robbie Gramer is a diplomacy and national security reporter at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @RobbieGramer