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Senate panel advances Trump pick to head Voice of America

President Donald Trump speaks during a meeting with Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson, and Kansas Gov. Laura Kelly, in the Cabinet Room of the White House, Wednesday, May 20, 2020, in Washington. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci)
President Donald Trump speaks during a meeting with Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson, and Kansas Gov. Laura Kelly, in the Cabinet Room of the White House, Wednesday, May 20, 2020, in Washington. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci) (Copyright 2020 The Associated Press. All rights reserved)

WASHINGTON – A bitterly divided Senate panel voted along party lines Thursday to advance President Donald Trump’s choice to head the Voice of America and other U.S. government-funded international broadcasters that have been the subject of harsh criticism from the White House.

After rejecting eight Democratic requests to postpone the move, the Senate Foreign Relations Committee sent Michael Pack’s nomination to the full Senate on a 12-10 vote. Pack is Trump’s choice to run the U.S. Agency for Global Media, which oversees VOA and its sister outlets like Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, Radio Free Asia and the Cuba-oriented Radio and Television Marti.

Democrats oppose the nomination of Pack, a former associate of Trump political adviser Steve Bannon, in part because of questions about his past business dealings. Recent criticism of VOA from Trump and the White House has intensified their concerns about his nomination.

Trump has pushed for Pack’s confirmation while launching unprecedented attacks on the Voice of America, the venerable broadcaster created during World War II to air independent news and promote American values to the world, for its coverage of China’s response to the coronavirus pandemic.

Democrats fear that Pack, a conservative filmmaker and former educator, could turn the organization into a Trump propaganda machine funded with more than $200 million a year in taxpayer money. Trump has mused about his desire to control a media outlet.

Pack has dismissed concerns he would allow that to happen, but the recent furor has reignited those concerns. The top Democrat on the committee. New Jersey Sen. Bob Menendez, and other Democrats said the vote should be delayed because Pack has not yet answered questions about discrepancies in tax returns related to a non-profit organization he runs.

Yet, the uproar over Voice of America and its recent coverage of China’s handling of the pandemic overshadowed the possible legal issues. It has become a touchstone in the Trump administration’s efforts to criticize Chinese authorities for the outbreak and deflect criticism of the U.S. response as the 2020 presidential campaign heats up.

Trump and his allies have long viewed VOA with suspicion, regarding it as an element of a “deep state” trying to thwart their policies. The hostility burst open on April 9 when Trump communications adviser Dan Scavino posted a VOA story about China to his official Twitter account with the comment “American taxpayers—paying for China’s very own propaganda, via the U.S. Government funded Voice of America! DISGRACE!!”

The story that VOA posted — about the lifting of the lockdown in the Chinese city of Wuhan, where the new coronavirus first emerged — was actually an Associated Press report, but the following day, an official White House publication accused VOA of using taxpayer money “to speak for authoritarian regimes.” Trump weighed in several days later, calling VOA’s coverage “disgusting” and demanding that the Senate confirm Pack.

A planned vote on Pack's nomination was delayed earlier this month after the Washington, D.C., attorney general informed Menendez and committee chairman Jim Risch, R-Texas, that it had an open civil investigation into the tax return discrepancies.