While we are transfixed by the latest “shiny object”–the latest betrayal of long-time allies, the emergence of emails documenting the White Nationalism of the White House, Trump’s approval of war crimes, the daily evidence that our President is quite insane, and of course the Impeachment hearings–the current administration stays busy behind the scenes destroying both democratic norms and constitutional barriers.
I have previously posted about a number of these assaults–generally, they are being led by the unqualified and ethically compromised individuals currently ensconced in cabinet and other administrative positions. Recent reporting, however, locates one such offensive in the White House itself: efforts by wannabe theocrat Mike Pence to further erode the First Amendment’s separation of church and state.
As ProPublica reports
Last November, a top Trump appointee at the U.S. Agency for International Development wrote a candid email to colleagues about pressure from the White House to reroute Middle East aid to religious minorities, particularly Christian groups.
“Sometimes this decision will be made for us by the White House (see… Iraq! And, increasingly, Syria),” said Hallam Ferguson, a senior official in USAID’s Middle East bureau, in an email seen by ProPublica. “We need to stay ahead of this curve everywhere lest our interventions be dictated to us.”
The email underscored what had become a stark reality under the Trump White House. Decisions about U.S. aid are often no longer being governed by career professionals applying a rigorous review of applicants and their capabilities. Over the last two years, political pressure, particularly from the office of Vice President Mike Pence, had seeped into aid deliberations and convinced key decision-makers that unless they fell in line, their jobs could be at stake.
Some five months before this email was sent, Ferguson’s former boss had been fired. The action followed a communication from Pence’s chief of staff, in which recipients were told that Pence was “displeased” with USAID’s work in Iraq, especially the agency’s decision to turn down Christian groups for aid.
The administration’s efforts to influence USAID funding worried professionals within the agency. Not only did it risk violating First Amendment prohibitions on favoring one religion over another, but there were practical concerns: if the U.S. was perceived as favoring Christians, that perception could–indeed, it probably would– worsen Iraq’s sectarian divides.
USAID regulations state that awards “must be free from political interference or even the appearance of such interference and must be made on the basis of merit, not on the basis of the religious affiliation of a recipient organization, or lack thereof.”
Despite the clear language of the regulations, USAID recently announced two grants to Iraqi organizations that had previously been rejected. According to the Pro Publica article, political appointees, rather than professionals charged with making these determinations, “significantly impacted” the awards.
Typically, such appointees have little to no involvement in USAID grants, to avoid perceptions of undue political influence on procurement.
One of the groups selected for the newest awards has no full-time paid staff, no experience with government grants and a financial tie that would typically raise questions in an intense competition for limited funds. The second organization received its first USAID direct grant after extensive public comments by its leader and allies highlighting what they described as a lack of U.S. assistance to Christians. The two groups — a charity that primarily serves Christian Iraqis and a Catholic university — were not originally listed as front-runners, according to a document seen by ProPublica.
The remainder of the lengthy article documents the measures taken by the administration–especially Pence’s office–to change the criteria by which funds would be awarded in order to benefit Christian organizations. It also reports on Pence’s “pushback” to warnings that favoritism to Christian organizations would run afoul of both the First Amendment and agency regulations.
Just more evidence that while we are transfixed by Trump’s bizarre behaviors and ungrammatical tweets, lobbyists are running federal agencies for the benefit of their former clients, faux Christians are undermining the Constitution and distorting foreign policy, the entire administration is undermining the rule of law…
And today’s GOP is fiercely defending all of it.