I have witnessed the death of democracy. I don’t mean in a poor country with few democratic institutions and a weak rule of law. I don’t mean via a military coup or under pressure from a hostile power. I mean here in the United States, quietly and as a result of decades of decay — rot from within.
In a sense, we all witnessed it. From the moment Donald Trump was elected president until the day he left office, government officials refused to follow his orders that conflicted with their own views, in spite of their obligation to serve whoever is president. The permanent bureaucracy felt they knew better. After all, they were experts, while the president, in their estimation, was an ignoramus, or worse, unfit for office. For example, during Trump’s first impeachment, a parade of senior officials, many serving on the White House’s National Security Council or in the State Department, testified against their boss, making clear that their understanding of Ukraine was superior to his, liberating them to undermine his policies.
But I witnessed the death of democracy up close and personal. President Trump selected me to run the U.S. Agency for Global Media, which is responsible for all government international broadcasting. At a budget of about $850 million a year, USAGM is made up of five broadcasters: Voice of America, Cuba Broadcasting, Middle East Broadcasting Networks, Radio Free Asia, and Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty. Together, they reach over 350 million people a week in over 70 languages.
I’ve been told that the day after Trump was elected, the senior leadership of USAGM held a meeting to decide how best to block Trump from assuming authority over the agency, as they deemed Trump dangerous and unqualified. The White House selected me in March 2017, two months after President Trump was sworn in. Agency leadership, along with others in the federal bureaucracy and eventually Democrats in the Senate, blocked my confirmation for three years and three months. I finally walked through the door of USAGM in June 2020 for the final eight months of the Trump presidency.
My goal, my only goal, was to return the news services to their legally mandated mission: to report news that is “accurate, objective, and comprehensive” (in the words of the VOA charter, which is U.S. law), and to promote American ideals like democracy and human rights around the world. In this modest, nonpartisan goal, I was doomed from the start. The USAGM permanent bureaucracy was ready to undermine every move of my administration, with the help of their allies in the media, Congress, and the courts, as well as pro bono lawyers. After all, they had been preparing for years while my nomination languished.
To give a few highlights. On my first day, I removed or caused to resign the heads of the five networks, as was my explicit right under law, and as is a common practice among incoming CEOs in the private and public sector. This move was clearly nonpartisan, as I had removed Republicans as well as Democrats, and they were essentially political appointees. The purpose was a clean start. The media portrayed this as “the Wednesday night massacre,” though only five out of 4000 employees left. They repeated their claims that I intended to turn USAGM into “Trump TV,” which they had manufactured the day after the White House selected me in March 2017.
Every subsequent act of my administration was not only blocked, but lied about and used to discredit me personally and the Trump administration generally. My efforts were treated as an attack that merited the strongest counterattack from my purported employees. Out of innumerable examples, let me offer only one.
During the summer of 2020, in the midst of the presidential election, a whistleblower called our attention to a pro-Biden video on the Voice of America Urdu Service, the website of which could be viewed all over the world, including here in the U.S. The video was a repackaged Biden ad, literally. It featured then-candidate Biden, in Michigan, asking Muslims to vote for him with supporting appearances by Ilhan Omar and Rashida Tlaib, progressive Democratic congresswomen. No context was offered. Please view the video and decide for yourself:
Everyone knew this violated the VOA charter, which is U.S. law that we all are required to uphold, and possibly other campaign and broadcasting laws. When we called this to the VOA’s attention, they took it down, though reluctantly. A week later, we discovered an audio version was still available. As CEO, I decided to launch an investigation to determine who was responsible and what disciplinary actions should be taken. The investigation was led by USAGM career attorneys and our HR department, coordinated by a lawyer I had brought in to the agency. They recommended a series of actions, including terminating the contractors who produced the video and milder actions for their superiors, including leave without pay for a week or two.
This was not the first time the VOA had flagrantly violated U.S. law and its charter. During the 2016 election, the VOA Ukrainian service ran Robert De Niro’s infamous attack on Donald Trump calling him “a pig” and “a dog” and saying he wanted “to punch him in the face.” This, too, ran without context. Viewers were not told it was part of a pro-Hillary Clinton ad. The VOA is free to criticize the president or any candidate, but this was advocacy for one side, pure and simple. Remember, these are your tax dollars at work.
However, never before I became CEO had there been any consequences for breaking the law. My inquiry was a shock to the system, but I felt I had to uphold the law.
My actions were immediately attacked by the legacy media and by concerned congressmen, all in touch with the people I had fired. They charged that I was interfering with journalists and, once again, trying to turn the VOA into Trump TV. One reporter mocked me for saying that the VOA spot was targeted at getting out the Muslim vote in Michigan for Biden, citing how few Urdu speakers there are in Michigan. But the VOA spot was in English, as he well knew, and he also knew that his readers would not know this.
Soon, the fired contractors were represented by pro bono lawyers who accused us of violating their first amendment rights. As contractors working for the U.S. government, are they free to express whatever views they wish, whatever the law says? Moreover, I am their boss at a media company. Do CNN journalists claim first amendment rights when Jeff Zucker tells them what to report? The big lie of this story was that I told any reporters what to report. I simply required them to follow the law and requested that the agency enforce its own rules.
The most senior person responsible was Kelu Chao, then the head of VOA language services. In her case, I merely gave her a verbal reprimand that did not appear in her personnel file. She, too, immediately signed on to a suit against us, alleging a violation of her first amendment rights. Today, she has been rewarded by the Biden administration and is the acting CEO of USAGM, my old position. All others involved in this scandalous misuse of taxpayer funds have been rehired and many promoted.
This is only one of a long list of similar stories. In short, there was no way for me, a Senate-confirmed agency head, to assume authority over this mid-sized agency. The permanent bureaucracy and their allies simply would not permit it. Bad as it was for me, it is so much worse at bigger agencies like the State Department, the Department of Defense, and the intelligence agencies. No matter that Donald Trump was the duly elected president of the United States, federal bureaucrats did not accept that. After all, they knew better how to run the country, so that is what they did. This is tyranny, pure and simple — government by unelected bureaucrats, subverting the will of the majority.
What to do about it? I do not accept the two favorite solutions put forward by conservative reformers.
The first group says the problem is that Donald Trump did not get enough qualified, experienced, government professionals in key political appointments soon enough. Next time, we need to have a government in waiting, ready to serve. Surely, this is a good idea, but far from sufficient. In my agency of 4,000 people, I could bring in about 10 political appointees. We were outnumbered 400-to-1.
As near as I can tell, all my mid-level and senior managers were partisan Democrats or not very political. Many lower-level workers, especially technicians, were more evenly divided, but they did not lead the agency. Those who did lead the agency made their opposition to President Trump and me personally very clear. No amount of management genius by a few could overcome this concerted opposition of the many who were out to undermine us. Only hubris could persuade otherwise, hubris which is likely to lead to ineffective and weak leadership. Usually, those who think they can manage the bureaucracy end up instead making an implicit deal with them: They are allowed a few conservative pet projects to burnish their credentials with their base, but they agree to let the bureaucracy run the remaining 95% of the agency — a recipe for a peaceful and “successful” time in office.
The second, more radical group of reformers advocates firing huge numbers of career bureaucrats in a short time. Some say we need to fire 30% in the first weeks of a new administration, an appealing slogan and rallying cry, but no more likely to succeed than a “good management” solution.
I highly doubt that this ambitious objective could be achieved, given the size and nature of the modern federal bureaucracy. Government bureaucrats have powerful civil service protections. In eight months, I could not fire a handful of people whom career adjudicators recommended terminating for cause, such as gross mismanagement leading to security lapses. I put them on administrative leave with pay and then started the process of removal. All have been brought back among those who wanted to return. Republicans often promise to eliminate entire departments. For example, candidate Ronald Reagan ran on eliminating the newly created Education Department. Not one department has been eliminated. Most grew in size, including the Education Department.
Even if the new administration could institute a 30% across-the-board cut, the wrong people would likely be fired. The best at scheming, the most committed ideologues, are the most skilled in surviving reductions in force. Declaring war on the bureaucracy, unless you have a real plan, will mire the new administration in endless internecine battles, in court and on the Hill, distracting it from the rest of its agenda. Remember all the supporting institutions, like the media, the courts, and whistleblower law firms? They would have a field day.
So, what can be done? The good news is that about half of Americans know, in their gut, that the government no longer represents the will of the people. They need to rise up and demand an end to this tyranny. We did it before, in 1776. This time, we have a constitution and a rule of law, so we don’t need an armed revolution, but we do need an unarmed one, a peaceful democratic revolution. If a large majority of the people forcefully demand change and reflect this at the ballot box in a clear mandate, then and only then reform can come. Democracy will then return, and we will once again have a government of, for, and by the people. Many gave their lives for this. Now, it is our turn.
Michael Pack is a documentary filmmaker, president of Manifold Productions, and former CEO of the U.S. Agency for Global Media. He has produced over 15 documentaries for public television, most recently Created Equal: Clarence Thomas in His Own Words.
Read the full article at the Washington Examiner