WASHINGTON – Secretary of State Mike Pompeo took to U.S. government-funded airwaves on Monday to deliver a full-throated defense of the Trump administration’s presentation of its foreign policy and its support for democracy abroad.
Less than a week after supporters of President Donald Trump stormed the U.S. Capitol to try to subvert the results of an election that saw President-elect Joe Biden win, Pompeo told staff at the Voice of America that America retains the credibility and standing to defend democratic values abroad. And, he said, they should amplify it.
Pompeo’s speech reaffirmed his loyalty to Trump at a time when Democrats are calling for Cabinet members and Vice President Mike Pence to invoke the 25th Amendment to remove Trump from office.
In an address broadcast live across VOA’s English and foreign language services, Pompeo also stood by the parent agency’s embattled director, Michael Pack, who has been accused by lawmakers and others of trying to turn the U.S.-funded international broadcasters into Trump propaganda outlets. He also denounced protests by some VOA staffers who complained that live coverage of his speech would violate VOA’s mandate to present unbiased news to foreign audiences.
“It’s not fake news for you to broadcast that this is the greatest nation the world has ever known,” Pompeo said, without directly mentioning Wednesday's deadly attack on the seat of the U.S. Congress. “I’m not saying ignore our faults. Acknowledge them. But this isn’t the Vice of America, focusing on everything that’s wrong with our great nation. It certainly isn’t the place to give authoritarian regimes in Beijing or Tehran a platform.”
But, he said VOA had forgotten its mission, allowed foreigners with suspect loyalties to represent it, and had become too focused on American deficiencies.
“We allowed security protocols to lapse, and VOA lost its commitment to its founding mission,” Pompeo said. “Its broadcasts became less about telling the truth about America, and too often about demeaning America.”
Those allegations have been forcefully denied by VOA staffers, lawmakers and others. But, Pompeo said VOA journalists should emulate his example in extolling U.S. virtues.
““Your mission is to promote democracy, freedom and American values in the world,” he said. “This is what sets VOA apart from the MSNBCs and Fox News alike. You can give voice to the voiceless in dark corners of the world. You’re the voice of American striving. You’re the voice of American exceptionalism. You’re the tip of freedom’s spear.”
Some VOA employees, however, were not impressed by the message or plans to deliver it in person in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic.
In a message sent to Pack and new VOA director Robert Reilly on Friday, a lawyer for a group of VOA employees objected to Pompeo's plan to speak at the agency, saying it “endangers public health and safety, violates law, rule and regulation and grossly wastes government resources.”
“A broadcast speech by the outgoing secretary of state on topics on which he has been widely covered should be seen for what it is: the use of VOA to disseminate political propaganda in the waning days of the Trump administration,” said the letter, signed by attorney David Seide of the Government Accountability Project.
“As proposed, the planned coverage by language services will be one-sided and lacking the necessary objectivity protected by the firewall. It is political meddling,” he said.
Pompeo rejected the complaints and compared them to actions to ban Trump by Twitter and other social media outlets.
“I read that some VOA employees didn’t want me to speak today,” Pompeo said. “They didn’t want the voice of American diplomacy to be broadcast on. ... the Voice of America. Think about that.”
“We are all parts of institutions with duties and responsibilities higher than any of us. And this kind of censorial instinct is dangerous," he said. "It’s morally wrong. And it’s against your mandate. Censorship, wokeness, political correctness, it all points in one direction — authoritarianism, cloaked as moral righteousness. It’s similar to what we’re seeing at Twitter, and Facebook, and Apple, and on too many university campuses.”
There was no immediate response to the letter of complaint from VOA or from Pack, who runs the U.S. Agency for Global Media, which oversees the network and its sister outlets.
Pack, a conservative filmmaker, Trump ally and onetime associate of former Trump political adviser Steve Bannon, has made no secret of his intent to shake up the agency since he became CEO of USAGM after a long confirmation battle in the Senate that finally ended after Trump and his allies launched a series of attacks on VOA and demanded new leadership.
Biden and his team have pledged a full review of Pack’s actions and could replace him shortly after the inauguration, but it’s not entirely clear how many of his personnel decisions could be immediately reversed.