The White House assigned to Michael Pack, the new CEO of the U.S. Agency for Global Media, an advisor who had little experience with the group that Pack was being asked to run.
That advisor, acting as what's often called a "sherpa" within the halls of the White House and Capitol Hill, was longtime public relations operative Diane Cullo, according to people familiar with the matter. These people declined to be named as her role had yet to be known in the buildup to his recent Senate confirmation.
Sherpas often give counsel to the nominee when they are being initially vetted by a congressional committee and going through the confirmation process. They usually have prior experience working in the department or agency that their nominee is assigned, have helped other nominees through committees, or have worked in a similar field.
Cullo has been an advisor at the Department of Agriculture and works in the Office of Tribal Relations, her LinkedIn page says. For the 12 years prior to joining the USDA, she ran her own communications shop, DLC Communications, while conducting community outreach for Wegmans Food Markets. Since guiding Pack, she's become his new deputy chief of staff.
Senate aides who vetted Pack's nomination say that her lack of experience with the agency was evident in the buildup to his eventual Foreign Relations committee confirmation earlier this month. She appeared to have no knowledge on how the agency operated, seemed unclear about it's overall mission and would often push back on requests for documents, the aides recalled. After being nominated by President Donald Trump almost two years ago, he was recently confirmed by the full Senate to take over at USAGM.
Shortly after Pack got the job, he fired or demoted heads and executive board members at media companies under USAGM, such as those at Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty and Radio Free Asia. Trump has regularly taken aim at the Voice of America, another USAGM backed group.
The move to put Cullo on Pack's confirmation team left congressional aides stunned. They also came away with feeling that the Trump White House had so much distrust in the agency that they picked an administration aide who has been loyal since the president was elected four years ago.
The White House confirmed to CNBC that Cullo was Pack's sherpa. An official defended the choice as someone who has years of experience helping other nominees through their confirmation process and her career in communications.
"Diane was selected as a sherpa because of prior experience helping shepherd nominees through the confirmation process, her experience in communications, and because she was willing to do it on top her day job at USDA. She stepped up to the need when asked," a senior administration official explained.
The White House aide did not return follow questions on which other nominees Cullo has previously guided but Politico previously reported that she was chosen to help Sonny Perdue with being confirmed to become the Secretary of Agriculture before she ended up working for his department. On Cullo's resume, initially published by ProPublica, it says she was the chief media relations strategist for Perdue when he was being reviewed by the Senate. Perdue was initially confirmed by the Senate Committee on Agriculture, Nutrition and Forestry before he moved through the full Senate.
Cullo's resume also lists her as having worked for a non-profit, Take Back Our Republic, and was a consultant for House, Senate and presidential campaigns. Data from the nonpartisan Center for Responsive Politics shows she was paid just over $17,000 by party committees for consulting work during the 2014 election cycle and Federal Election Commission records show she once assisted Republican Suzanne Scholte's run for congress in Virginia's 11th congressional district. Scholte ended up losing in that bid for congress.
After publication, a spokesman for the USAGM released a statement to CNBC, defending Cullo's record.
"Diane has spent much of her career in our nation's capital, and boasts an impressive record of achievements in government, most recently at the USDA, as well as in the private sector," the agency spokesman said. "From these extensive experiences, and over the 22 months she spent assisting Mr. Pack with his successful confirmation, she acquired a profound knowledge of the mission and operations of the USAGM and its media organizations. Diane is honored to assist Mr. Pack's efforts to implement his vision for the USAGM, communicated throughout his hearing and since taking office as CEO."
Cullo and the USDA did not return requests for comment.
The tension prior to Pack's confirmation has been one of many controversies surrounding his nomination, leading to criticism on both sides of the aisle.
Sen. Bob Menendez, the ranking member of the Foreign Relations Committee, has had repeated run-ins with Pack. In April, he wrote a letter to the White House accusing Pack of possible self dealing. Pack, a conservative filmmaker with ties to former White House chief strategist Steve Bannon, has a non-profit that's been under investigation by the Washington, D.C., attorney general.
Rep. Eliot Engel, chairman of the House Committee on Foreign Affairs, called on Pack to appear for a committee hearing in July about his future plans for the agency and to explain why he moved against longtime USAGM officials.
Sen. Marco Rubio and other GOP lawmakers have also expressed concern with what they're seeing from Pack. Menendez has called for the State Department's inspector general to investigate the USAGM CEO.
The New York Times reported that a lawsuit filed on behalf of the Open Technology Fund, another USAGM entity, which argued Pack did not have the legal authority to remove staff or its governing board.