United to Protect Democracy (UPD)

  • Established in early 2017, United to Protect Democracy (UPD), which is commonly known as Protect Democracy, describes itself as a “nonpartisan nonprofit” organization whose “urgent goal” is to “hold the President and the Executive Branch accountable to the laws and longstanding practices that have protected our democracy through both Democratic and Republican Administrations.” Its initiatives, […]

Established in early 2017, United to Protect Democracy (UPD), which is commonly known as Protect Democracy, describes itself as a “nonpartisan nonprofit” organization whose “urgent goal” is to “hold the President and the Executive Branch accountable to the laws and longstanding practices that have protected our democracy through both Democratic and Republican Administrations.” Its initiatives, however, are anything but bipartisan. Defining itself from the outset as being opposed to the agendas of the newly elected President Donald Trump, UPD seeks to turn back what it calls the “unprecedented tide of authoritarian-style politics” that “is fundamentally at odds with the Bill of Rights, the constitutional limitations on the role of the President, and the laws and unwritten norms that prevent overreach and abuse of power.” Notably, the organization was founded by several leading lawyers from the Barack Obama Administration, which practiced Executive overreach and abuse of power to a greater extent than any other presidential administration in American history.

From its inception, UPD was part of an extensive anti-Trump alliance of nonprofits managed by leftist billionaire Pierre Omidyar, the founder of eBay.

UPD started out with a $1.5 million operating budget and five paid staffers, though a February 2017 report in Politico said that the latter figure was slated to double within a short period of time. The organization is incorporated both as a 501(c)(3) and a 501(c)(4), meaning, as The Hill explains, that “it can operate as a nonprofit while also engaging in limited political advocacy.”

Outlining its mission, UPD in February 2017 said it planned to monitor Trump administration officials for evidence of possible ethics violations, such as intervention in the activities of regulatory agencies, or the intimidation of staffers in those agencies. Toward that end, UPD’s first major undertaking took place during a week in mid-February when it submitted 50 Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests regarding such matters. The organization vowed to eventually: (a) make its FOIA findings available to reporters; (b) press for congressional oversight of Executive Branch activities; and (c) file lawsuits whenever appropriate. The underlying objective was to demonize and delegitimize President Trump and his cabinet members.

The principal leader of UPD is Ian Bassin, who served as an Associate White House Counsel for the Obama administration from January 2009 through September 2011. He was also the General Counsel and Campaign Director for Avaaz.org from November 2011 to March 2014, and Deputy Counsel to New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio from March 2014 through November 2015. “When people hear concerns about democracies declining into authoritarianism,” Bassin said near the time of UPD’s founding, “they expect that moment to come in a singular thunderclap where everyone can see that this is the time. In reality, often times, democracies decline over a period of years that happen through a series of much smaller steps.”

Joining Bassin on UPD’s Board of Directors is the group’s Communications Director, Jesse Lee), who served as Director) of Progressive Media & Online Response in the Obama White House. Lee also has done Internet-related work for the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, and he was the Senior New Media Advisor to then-Speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives, Nancy Pelosi.

UPD’s Operations Manager is Caroline McKay, a former legal assistant in the Obama White House Counsel’s office.

According to Politico, UPD also enjoys “a huge network of support” from other Obama attorneys and from partner organizations like the Brennan Center for Justice.

UPD employsnumber of former Democratic staffers—including a former aide to U.S. Representative Adam Schiff.

A notable UPD director is Ricki Seidman, who advised Christine Blasey Ford in her 2018 effort to prevent Trump nominee Brett Kavanaugh from being confirmed to the Supreme Court by accusing him, without evidence, of having sexually assaulted her 36 years earlier.

Several Never-Trumpers are also involved with UPD as advisors, including such notables as National Review columnists Mona Charen and Linda Chavez, ABC News pundit Matthew Dowd, and failed presidential candidate Evan McMullin.

In 2018, UPD collected nearly $7 million in donations. Between 2017-19, Omidyar’s most politically-active nonprofit organization, the Democracy Fund, contributed some $2 million to UPD.

On June 21, 2019, UPD sponsored a letter urging Congress to pass the Security from Political Interference in Justice Act, legislation introduced by Democratic Senators Kamala Harris, Richard Blumenthal, and Sheldon Whitehouse. The bill would have required the Trump White House to create detailed logs of all its communications with the Department of Justice, and to disclose those logs to Congress. Co-signatories to the letter included the Brennan Center for JusticeCommon CauseCitizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington (CREW), the Niskanen Center, the Project on Government Oversight, Public Citizen, Republicans for the Rule of Law (a project of Defending Democracy Together), Stand Up Republic, and Tech Freedom.

In February 2020, UPD organized and draftedletter in which more than 1,100 former Justice Department layers condemned Attorney General William Barr and pressed him to step down from his post because of his decision to override “line prosecutors,” including two holdovers from Robert Mueller’s investigation into alleged collusion between the Trump administration and Russia, who had recommended an excessive prison sentence against former Trump advisor Roger Stone. “Barr’s actions in doing the President’s personal bidding unfortunately speak louder than his words,” they wrote. “Those actions, and the damage they have done to the Department of Justice’s reputation for integrity and the rule of law, require Mr. Barr to resign.”