White House officials were in close contact with the Agriculture Department in the hours leading up to Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack’s decision to oust USDA employee Shirley Sherrod in 2010, according to nearly 2,000 pages of internal e-mail messages released by the administration.
E-mails obtained by the Associated Press under the Freedom of Information Act do not contradict 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 remarks interpreted by some as racist surfaced on a conservative Web site.
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 submitted a resignation hours later at the request of a senior USDA official.
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 Obama also apologized after her ouster created a firestorm.
The transcripts show that Agriculture Department officials quickly e-mailed White House counterparts as the story began to hit conservative Web sites and later Fox News the afternoon and evening of July 19, 2010. The video — posted on the Web site BigGovernment.com, 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 an e-mail 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 e-mail.
Reid Cherlin, then a White House spokesman, responds, asking Mather what USDA is going to say about the matter and asking, “Has she been fired? I’ll alert folks here.”
Mather replies 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 e-mailing the USDA’s White House liaison, Kevin Washo, asking him to keep her in the loop: “Please. Please. Please.”
Washo wrote back to her, “I tried calling you.”
In a separate exchange with Green, Washo asks 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 message, Green says, “I still think we need the rest of the speech if we can get it.”
Despite those concerns, USDA officials extracted the resignation from Sherrod that evening. In an e-mail, 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 e-mail 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 messages detail White House and USDA calls to members of Vilsack, Congress and civil rights groups the night Sherrod was fired.
No one stepped in to stop 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.