Established in early 2017, United to Protect Democracy (UPD) 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.” Drawing its name from the theme of then-President Barack Obama’s farewell speech in January 2017, 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.”
UPD was founded by several leading lawyers from the Obama Administration. The organization 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.
UPD 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 as much as possible.
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.