White House officials were in close contact with the Agriculture Department in the hours leading up to Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack’s decision to fire USDA employee Shirley Sherrod in 2010, according to nearly 2,000 pages of internal emails released by the administration.
Emails obtained by the media under the Freedom of Information Act don’t contradict Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack’s assertion that he made the decision to oust Sherrod as the department’s director of rural development in Georgia after an edited video of her making supposed racist remarks surfaced on a right-wing website.
But they do show that the White House and Agriculture Department officials were sharing information and advice from the first minutes after the scandal began to emerge until Sherrod was forced to submit a resignation hours later by senior USDA officials.
USDA officials asked Sherrod, who is Black, to resign after the original video emerged. Once it became clear a day later that Sherrod’s speech was about racial reconciliation, not division, Vilsack apologized and asked her to return to the department – an offer she declined. President Barack Obama also offered an apology after her ouster created a racial firestorm.
The emails show that Agriculture Department officials quickly emailed White House counterparts as the story began to hit right-wing websites and later Fox News the afternoon and evening of July 19, 2010. The video – posted on a website run by the late Andrew Breitbart – showed Sherrod saying she was initially reluctant to help a white farmer more than two decades earlier.
USDA director of communications Chris Mather sent the White House press office a heads-up email describing the video.
“She goes on to make it a larger case about understanding race …. but looks bad. (Fox News host Bill) O’Reilly just called us for statement,” Mather says in the email.
White House spokesman Reid Cherlin, responds, asking Mather in an email what USDA is going to say about the matter, “and has she been fired? I’ll alert folks here.”
Mather answers, telling Cherlin that Sherrod had been placed on administrative leave. “I guess some folks over there are circling wagons,” Mather says, referring to the White House.
At the same time, Valerie Green of the White House presidential personnel office was emailing the USDA’s White House liaison, Kevin Washo, asking him to loop her in, “Please. Please. Please.”
Washo emails back to her, “I tried calling you.”
In a separate email exchange with Green, Washo asked for records the White House might have on Sherrod, who was a political appointee. Green says she is working on it. Washo replies: “Let me know what counsel says so we can be decisive on this.”
In a later email, Green says, “I still think we need the rest of the speech if we can get it.”
Despite those concerns, USDA officials forced the resignation of Sherrod that evening. In an email, she offered her resignation but put the Obama administration “on notice that I will get the whole story out.” The next day, Sherrod appeared on numerous television news programs, saying she was unfairly asked to leave.
The email exchanges confirm what White House and Agriculture Department officials acknowledged in background interviews in the weeks after the incident – that the White House was more involved in the immediate response to the video of Sherrod’s remarks than officials initially let on. Several emails detail White House and USDA calls to members of Congress, civil rights groups and Vilsack the night Sherrod was fired.
No one stepped in to stop Secretary Tom Vilsack from telling his subordinates to get Sherrod to resign. But it’s clear that the White House kept itself in the loop on the decision to oust her.
“We’re good with this version on this end. Counsel has cleared the language,” White House cabinet communications director Tom Gavin said in an email to the Agriculture Department’s Mather after Mather sent him Vilsack’s initial statement on Sherrod’s firing.
Many of the newly released emails are blacked out, citing laws that allow the government to withhold information that shows the “deliberative process.” Others concerning Sherrod’s personnel records also are blacked out. The Agriculture Department released an earlier batch of emails in October 2010.