House Dem: Plot To Oust Broadcast Board CEO ‘Our Worst Nightmare’

Rep. Eliot Engel (D-NY) speaks during a news conference discussing Russian sanctions on February 15, 2017. (Photo credit: ZACH GIBSON/AFP/Getty Images)
March 21, 2018 11:14 a.m.

The top Democrat on the House Foreign Affairs Committee says whistleblowers have detailed a plot by the Trump administration to oust the CEO of the Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG) and replace him with someone favored by the White House.

Rep. Eliot Engel (D-NY) warned in a letter to the BBG, obtained by TPM, that that candidate, André Mendes, then plans to dismiss the existing Board of Governors, according to the whistleblowers.

In a statement to TPM, Engel called the alleged plot “our worst nightmare coming true.”

“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 (sic) the Trump Administration,” Engel wrote to the BBG. “I view these claims as credible and this scenario as outrageous and unacceptable.”

The current BBG CEO, John Lansing, was appointed in 2015 by President Obama. Lansing is in charge of Voice of America and other branches of the agency, overseeing US-funded media abroad. Mendes currently runs the Cuba division of the agency.

Less than a month after President Trump’s inauguration, Breitbart News published a list titled “Top 10 Holdover Obama Bureaucrats President Trump Can Fire Or Remove Today.” Lansing was number three. 

“The problem in recent years is that Voice of America, Radio Free Europe, and the other broadcasting entities run by BBG have shifted from their traditional mission of promoting classic American values and interests to the rest of the world, and have become mirror images of mainstream media outlets like CNN, ABC, NBC, and CBS,” Breitbart wrote. “Current CEO John Lansing, a veteran cable industry executive, took over the reins in 2015 and has done nothing to stop that trend.”

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Now, Engel says whistleblowers have informed him that a former Breitbart contributor Jeffrey Shapiro has been working on a plan with White House Associate Director of Presidential Personnel Jennifer Locetta to push Lansing out the door and scrap the agency’s move toward independent, non-partisan journalism.

“According to several accounts, Messrs. Mendes and Shapiro have made it clear in recent months their intention to remake the BBG into an agency aimed at promoting the Trump Administration’s agenda, which would constitute an egregious violation of the law requiring a ‘firewall’ between BBG’s management and its independent journalists,” Engel wrote this week. “Such a scheme would represent a shocking abuse of authority and would reveal an effort by this administration to turn the BBG into a propaganda machine.”

Shapiro, a close ally of Steve Bannon, reportedly told colleagues when he was appointed to the agency last summer that his goal was to turn the BBG into a “Bannon legacy” and “root out all Trump disloyalists.”

Neither Shapiro nor a White House spokesperson responded immediately to TPM’s requests for comment.

Speaking to CNN, which first reported Engel’s letter, Mendes denied involvement in the plot to oust Lansing, but did say he has spoken with members of Congress about becoming the interim CEO of the Board.

But Engel emphasizes that even if Lansing is pushed out, U.S. law stipulates that the bipartisan Board of Governors is in charge of selecting an interim replacement until the Senate can confirm a permanent one.

“The reason we required the new CEO to be confirmed by the Senate was so no President could install someone unchecked to take over American broadcasting,” Engel wrote in a statement to TPM. “Trying to make an end run and appoint someone to lead the BBG with a partisan agenda is our worst nightmare coming true. If the Administration tries to move ahead with this plan, it will be vital for the Board to stand its ground and exercise its remaining authority.”

Before Trump was even sworn into office, officials at the BBG have expressed fear that the President would remake the agency and make it more propagandistic. A provision tucked into a massive spending bill passed in the final months of the Obama administration could make that goal easier to accomplish, by concentrating most of the BBG’s power in a CEO appointed by the President. In the very first days of his presidency, Trump dispatched former campaign aides to Voice of America to explore what changes could be made, but has until now refrained from a major overhaul.

Engel is demanding the agency turn over any memoranda, notes or communications related to the alleged plot by the end of this week.

Read the full letter below:

This story has been updated

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