Pence may have broken law to get Christian groups lucrative aid grants, report claims

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Critics contend the vice president may have acted unconstitutionally by seeking to push aid funding to Christian organizations.

Vice President Mike Pence may have broken the law when he made repeated efforts to ensure Christian organizations in Iraq received lucrative foreign aid grants, according to a ProPublica investigation released on Wednesday.

Even though Christians make up only 2% or 3% of the Iraqi population, Pence and his staff reportedly weighed in on U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) business in order to steer money to a handful of Christian organizations, according to the investigation.

The remaining 97% of Iraqis are Muslim.

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"There are very deliberate procurement guidelines that have developed over a number of years to guard precisely against this kind of behavior," Steven Feldstein, a former USAID official during the Obama administration, told ProPublica.

One USAID official told ProPublica that they worried Pence's actions could be deemed unconstitutional because they favored one religion over another.

Before the Trump administration, much of U.S. aid to Iraq flowed through the United Nations Development Program (UNDP), a multilateral effort to help rebuild cities ravaged by fighting with ISIS terrorists. UNDP focused on resettling refugees back in their home cities after ISIS was defeated there and helped Iraqi Christians resettle in the Nineveh Plains in northern Iraq where many Christians live.

But Pence was reportedly eager to see aid given directly to Iraqi Christian organizations, even if such meddling broke the rules and was potentially unconstitutional. USAID regulations clearly state 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."

Yet ProPublica's interviews with staff showed Trump political appointees became "frustrated" and found such rules "very constraining" because they wanted to "just do direct support" for preferred Christian organizations.

Pence blindsided USAID officials in October 2017 when he announced that the Trump administration was done supporting multilateral efforts such as the UNDP, adding that USAID would directly fund persecuted communities, including Iraqi Christians.

Over the next year, Pence aides became intricately involved in the grant-making process, including taking the unusual step of traveling to a March 2018 grant-making workshop in Iraq.

In the spring of 2018, USAID made grants to larger international aid organizations with established track records. Afterward, Pence's chief of staff reportedly demanded someone at USAID be punished for excluding Iraqi Christian organizations, which eventually led to USAID removing a high-ranking career official in charge of Middle East programs, moving her to a teaching position at the National War College.

USAID officials were reportedly dismayed by the move and coined a term for what had happened to the career official who had been removed: She had been "Penced," they claimed.

Pence's efforts were apparently successful: In October, two Iraqi Christian organizations received aid grants from the Trump administration. Both had been rejected previously, and, according to ProPublican, one had no full-time paid staff nor any experience with federal grants.

Even Iraqi Christians have been concerned about being singled out for support by the United States, fearing that the increased attention could make sectarian divides in the country even worse.

As ProPublica noted, Trump is currently attempting to shore up his white Christian evangelical base in advance of the 2020 election — and doling out lucrative aid to Christian groups overseas might help him accomplish that mission.

Published with permission of The American Independent Foundation.