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Senate committee approves nominee to oversee U.S. media agency criticized by Trump

Sen. James E. Risch (R-Idaho), shown in 2013, is chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. (J. Scott Applewhite/AP)

The Senate Foreign Relations Committee on Thursday advanced the nomination of a Trump administration pick — whose nonprofit organization is being investigated for possible tax violations — to lead a federal media agency with oversight of a news service that has come under increasing criticism from President Trump.

The 12-to-10 party-line vote came after testy debate among senators over the propriety of voting on Michael Pack’s nomination to lead the U.S. Agency for Global Media while his organization is being scrutinized by the District of Columbia’s attorney general. At one point, the committee went into a closed session at the request of Democrats so senators could speak about the controversial nomination privately. The agency oversees Voice of America and other government-funded news outlets.

Committee Chairman James E. Risch (R-Idaho) said he would have delayed the vote on Pack’s nomination if he had been asked to do so by the Justice Department because of any investigation.

“This is a particularly partisan matter,” Risch said. “We are going to consider the nomination of Michael Pack, which has been pending for just shy of two years, and the chairman believes it’s time to move forward on this.”

Nonprofit run by Trump nominee to head U.S. media agency is under investigation, senator says

Democratic senators have vigorously protested the nomination of Pack to the normally obscure post, one the president has taken a particular interest in as his administration steps up its criticism of Voice of America. The news agency is federally funded but operates independently, yet the White House has accused the outlet of promoting Chinese government propaganda in its coronavirus coverage and threatened to bar its White House bureau chief from traveling on Air Force Two.

In a private lunch with Senate Republicans earlier this week, Trump derisively called Voice of America the “voice of the Soviet Union” and “communists,” according to two people familiar with his remarks. Trump, who has praised Pack publicly and prodded senators privately to install him quickly at the media agency, again told senators that he wanted to see him confirmed, said the people, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to disclose details about a closed-door meeting.

Voice of America has defended its journalistic independence and denied any favoritism. The threat to ban Steve Herman from traveling with Vice President Pence appeared to be short-lived, as Herman accompanied Pence on his trip to Orlando this week. Pence’s aides had threatened to retaliate against Herman after he revealed that the vice president’s office had told journalists they would need masks for Pence’s visit to the Mayo Clinic last month — a requirement Pence himself did not follow.

Pence’s staff threatens action against reporter who tweeted about visit to clinic without surgical mask

The tax issues faced by Pack, a conservative filmmaker with ties to former Trump strategist Stephen K. Bannon, stem from his nonprofit group, Public Media Lab. CNBC reported in September that at least $1.6 million in donations from his nonprofit were sent to his independent production company, Manifold Productions.

The D.C. attorney general is investigating whether use of the funds from Pack’s nonprofit was unlawful and improper, according to committee Democrats and the attorney general’s office. Pack was scheduled for a committee vote last week until the disclosure of the investigation.

The office, led by D.C. Attorney General Karl A. Racine (D), has requested documents related to Pack from the committee. Risch said that it would be given access to documents that are already public and that the committee would confer with Senate counsel when it comes to nonpublic documents.

Sen. Robert Menendez (N.J.), the committee’s ranking Democrat, questioned why senators were voting on a nominee whom Menendez said had not been honest with the committee about his tax issues and whose organization is under an active investigation.

“I ask my colleagues on both sides of the aisle, why are we doing this?” Menendez said. “Is this really the person you want running a U.S. government agency with a budget of almost a billion dollars? And what does this say to the American people?”

The nomination now goes to the full Senate for consideration.

Josh Dawsey contributed to this report.