The work of the U.S. government’s largest public diplomacy program is currently being reviewed by two of President Donald Trump’s former campaign aides. It would be difficult for the administration to have found less qualified candidates for the job.
The Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG), whose mission is to “inform, engage, and connect people around the world in support of freedom and democracy,” oversees a global network of broadcasters. Through Voice of America, a government-run news agency that provides the world with news about the United States and its policies, and nonprofit grantees like Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, which works to inform foreign populations that lack a free press about the news in their own nations, BBG reaches an audience of 278 million people in 100 countries and 61 languages.
This is a critical moment for U.S. public diplomacy. Russia is fighting an information war in Europe and across the world in order to produce electoral victories for favored political parties and candidates. China continues to expand its economic influence in Asia and Africa. The Islamic State group uses a vast social media apparatus to recruit new adherents to violent extremism. U.S. efforts to counter those challenges depend in part on ensuring that accurate, meaningful information is conveyed to foreign communities.
As the new administration takes over that vast apparatus, it has deputized Matthew Ciepielowski and Matthew Schuck “to the CEO suite at the BBG where they will work with senior management” to oversee the transition, Politico reported. “As is routine for many federal agencies during any presidential transition, yesterday we welcomed the two-person landing team from the Trump administration,” BBG CEO John F. Lansing said in a statement to the publication. “We look forward to working with them as we continue to fulfill our mission, and support the independence of our journalists around the world.”
Lansing joined the BBG in 2015 following nine years as president of Scripps Networks, where he oversaw a $2.5 billion portfolio of six cable television networks and a digital division. Before that, he managed 10 television stations. He also had experience running a marketing association composed of 90 U.S. and Canadian television programmers. He got his start as a field producer in broadcast television and worked his way through newsrooms in that industry.
In short, Lansing has decades of experience managing media bureaucracies, working with foreign journalism outlets, and working as a reporter himself.
Trump has sent two hacks with little to no experience in journalism and none at all in public diplomacy or international relations to review Lansing’s work.
Matt Ciepielowski: The Ineffectual Political Operative
Ciepielowski is a 2011 graduate of Quinnipiac University, where he majored in political science and public relations, according to his LinkedIn profile. He was news editor and senior managing editor for the Quinnipiac Chronicle; the school paper’s archive shows his byline on 11 news stories or opinion pieces between September 2010 and March 2011. He once interned with the marketing firm Silver Lake Productions. That is the sum total of what could, under the most charitable circumstances, be described as his journalism background.
In an unusual twist for someone now helping to oversee a massive U.S. public diplomacy effort, Ciepielowski titled one of his college opinion pieces “Truth doesn’t kill people, our government does.” In that essay, Ciepielowski praises Wikileaks for releasing U.S. diplomatic cables, disparages Julian Assange’s arrest on Swedish rape charges, and states that the U.S. military “has killed thousands upon thousands of innocent civilians” in Afghanistan.
After graduation, Ciepielowski spent three and a half years as a field organizer, first for former Rep. Ron Paul’s (R-TX) presidential campaign in Louisiana and then for the Koch brothers’ organization Americans for Prosperity in New Hampshire. In March 2015, he became one of the first hires to Trump’s presidential campaign when he was named New Hampshire state director. Corey Lewandowski’s hiring was announced the same day.
Ciepielowski does not appear to have been very good at his job. During the New Hampshire primary, a more veteran operative was moved into the state due to reported fears that Ciepielowski was “in over his head.”
Trump won the primary and Ciepielowski remained in the role, but he still didn’t seem to make much of an impact. In August, he was the subject of a Politico article detailing how “Veteran Republican operatives and key leaders from several critical battleground states say that at best, they've never heard of Trump's state directors or have only limited familiarity with them — and at worst, they know them, and question their ability to do the job.”
Ciepielowski was also a central figure in a Trump campaign finance scandal. In July, experts highlighted “red flags” in Trump’s Federal Election Commission filings, including a potentially illegal pattern of “what appeared to be double reimbursements” for the same employee expenses, according to CNBC. Ciepielowski “received the most money, bringing in $7,199 — all tax free,” according to the channel.
The Trump campaign paid Ciepielowski nearly $200,000 for his work, federal filings show.
It’s unclear whether Ciepielowski’s radical theories about the correct size of government allow room for public diplomacy. During a 2014 appearance on the libertarian Rebel Love Show, Ciepielowski was asked, “Are you participating [in politics] because you want to do whatever you can and take it down from within?” He replied, “It doesn’t even necessarily have to be take it down -- I want to do whatever I can to lessen the boot of the state on people’s throats as we go along.” Asked, “If you could get rid of that boot, would you?” he responded, “Once we get the government down to 20 percent, 10 percent, 5 percent of the size it is now, then I would be more ready to have that conversation.”
Matt Schuck: The Right-Wing Media Hack
After graduating in 2012 from Montgomery College, where he studied broadcast radio and mass communications, Schuck rotated between jobs in the right-wing media and conservative and corporate public relations gigs before becoming Trump’s Wisconsin communications director in August.
Schuck got his start in radio, helping launch the Heritage Foundation’s show and working as an executive producer for the Virginia-based right-wing radio host John Fredericks. He has flacked for the Koch-funded Conservative Veterans for America and for the Online Lenders Alliance, the trade organization for the disreputable payday-lending industry.
Between PR jobs, Schuck spent 18 months working for second-tier conservative media outlets.
First he was a staff writer at Jason Mattera’s Daily Surge. Mattera was once a conservative wunderkind, becoming the editor of the venerable right-wing magazine Human Events in 2010, at age 26. He was terminated two years later, soon after accidentally conducting an ambush interview of a Bono impersonator (he thought he was actually ambushing Bono).
At Daily Surge, Schuck produced garden-variety right-wing clickbait and aggregation, along with a hefty helping of culture war outrage. It wasn’t much, but it was enough to get him a job as a political correspondent at One America News Network (OANN), the then-two-year-old conservative cable news network which has positioned itself as a more conservative competitor to Fox News.
At OANN, Schuck conducted softball interviews with a wide variety of Republican and conservative leaders, including Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, Citizens United’s David Bossie, and American Conservative Union’s Matt Schlapp.
One such interview stands out. In September 2015, Trump announced that he had decided to boycott Fox News for “treating me very unfairly.” Fox responded by saying that Trump’s tweet came after the network had canceled a scheduled interview with him because of his “personal attacks on our anchors and hosts.”
While Fox tried to patch things up, Trump did an interview with Schuck instead. Schuck introduced the segment by stating that Trump had just appeared before “a room packed full of supporters” to discuss, among other topics, “why Donald Trump will make America great again.” In the interview, Schuck offered Trump an open forum to discuss his grievances with Fox and repeat talking points. He also interviewed a Trump supporter. Schuck closed the segment by declaring that “one thing is clear: Donald Trump is in it to win it.”
Trump apparently enjoyed the interview:
A few weeks later, Schuck highlighted Trump’s praise of OANN:
Schuck left OANN the next month to become communications director for the Online Lenders Alliance. In August 2016, he joined the Trump campaign. And now he’s helping to lay the groundwork for our international public diplomacy efforts.