Obama administration officials knew they did not have all the facts last summer when they rushed to dismiss Shirley Sherrod from the Agriculture Department after learning of a video that painted her as a racist, newly released e-mails show.
The day after Sherrod’s ouster, even as USDA officials acknowledged in internal memos that they had not seen the full video, a White House senior aide e-mailed them to commend the department for moving quickly so the story would not gain “traction.”
As it turned out, Sherrod had been falsely accused, and the actions taken by Agriculture Secretary Thomas J. Vilsack and his senior staff became a major embarrassment for the Obama administration, raising questions about its basic competence and its preoccupation with public perceptions.
Hundreds of pages of e-mails released to the Los Angeles Times/Tribune Washington Bureau under the Freedom of Information Act provide a detailed, behind-the-scenes look at how the Obama administration handled the Sherrod case, an episode that culminated in apologies from both Vilsack and President Obama.
Obama took the extraordinary step of admitting that his administration had treated Sherrod poorly and said he had instructed his team to focus “on doing the right thing instead of what looks to be politically necessary at that very moment.”
In mid-July, conservative media entrepreneur Andrew Breitbart posted a 21/2 -minute video of Sherrod, an African American, addressing an NAACP meeting in Georgia earlier this year. Sherrod discussed her dealings with a white farmer in 1986 and how she was reluctant at one point to give him the “full force of what I could do.”
That touched off a furor in conservative media outlets, many of which called for her resignation. But the NAACP later released the complete video of Sherrod’s appearance, in which she said the encounter with the white farmer taught her that poor people of all races need help, which she resolved to give.
The e-mails, some of which were redacted by the Agriculture Department, do not show whether the White House ordered the dismissal, long a point of speculation. Sherrod has said that when department Deputy Undersecretary Cheryl Cook called and asked her to resign, Cook told her the White House wanted her out, but USDA and White House officials have said the decision was made within the agency.
However, the e-mails suggest the White House was watching with interest. “Just wanted you to know that this dismissal came up at our morning senior staff meeting today,” Christopher Lu, who serves as Obama’s liaison to the Cabinet, wrote to top Agriculture officials early July 20, the morning after Sherrod was ousted. “Everyone complimented USDA on how quickly you took this action,” he wrote, adding that it would stop an “unpleasant story” from getting “traction.” “Thanks for the great efforts.”
Within the USDA, the messages show, government officials had moved at breakneck pace to try to beat the news cycle, leaving little time to ask questions, seek legal advice or consider Sherrod’s side of the story.
The first sign of trouble arrived about 2 p.m. on July 19, in an e-mail from USDA communications staffer Wayne Maloney.
Maloney informed Chris Mather, the department’s director of communications, that a video had popped up online and that a conservative website soon would publicize it.
“It speaks for itself and you need to watch it right away,” Maloney writes.
Mather’s response was blunt. “THIS IS HORRIBLE,” she wrote as she sent notice — subject line “Super Urgent” — up the chain of command to Karen Ross, Vilsack’s chief of staff, and her deputy, Carole Jett.
It took just an hour and a half to get a directive from Vilsack. “The S [Secretary Vilsack] is absolutely sick and mad over the S Sherrod issue. He wants her immediately on adm leave,” wrote Krysta Harden, assistant secretary of congressional relations.
Cook responded simply, “Done.”
Five minutes later, Cook reached Sherrod on a cellphone. Sherrod gave her side of the story, according to a timeline assembled by Cook.
Cook and Dallas Tonsager, undersecretary of rural development, said in an e-mail sent to Vilsack a few minutes later that the subject of the speech was blacks and whites working together.
“She said there is a copy of the entire speech, and Cheryl asked her to provide it as quickly as possible,” the e-mails said.
But Vilsack did not wait. An hour later, Cook called Sherrod, who was driving in Georgia, to ask her to resign. Another hour later, Cook called Sherrod again to ask her to resign by the end of the day.
“I called her a fourth time at 6:35 to ask whether she’d be willing to pull over to the side of the road and submit a resignation by email,” Cook writes in the account.
Sherrod agreed, and her job working with poor farmers in rural Georgia was finished.
“I feel so disappointed that the secretary and the president let a misrepresentation of my words on the part of the tea party be the reason to ask me to resign,” Sherrod wrote in her letter of resignation, typed on a BlackBerry to Cook. “Please look at the tape and see that I use the story from 1986 to show people that the issue is not about race but about those who have versus those who do not.”
An hour later, Kevin Washo, the USDA’s White House liaison, sent one last e-mail to Cook, “Did we ever get the full copy of the speech?” Cook said they had not.
Vilsack issued a statement on Sherrod’s dismissal that night. And e-mails show the officials had not yet grasped the magnitude of the brewing controversy. Shortly after midnight, Mather was planning containment.
“To squash day two stories, I think we need to consider what happens if this has legs tomorrow, early am if possible,” she wrote.
Later on the morning of July 20, Agriculture Department officials sent out a memo of talking points for defending Sherrod’s ouster.
In a question-and-answer format, the talking points acknowledged that the department had “not seen the entire video” of Sherrod’s speech, but must safeguard public trust in the agency.
“Comments made by Mrs. Sherrod, even if taken out of context, undermine that trust.”
At first, the department was hopeful that its actions would stand.
But by Tuesday afternoon, Sherrod began giving frequent televised interviews saying her comments had been taken out of context. The NAACP, which had been quick to criticize Sherrod, was considering a reversal. The White House was asking whether Vilsack would change course.
USDA officials huddled, according to a timeline compiled by Deputy Secretary Kathleen Merrigan.
“The deputy expressed concern that Sherrod was attacking the administration on TV and that our jobs as political appointees is to protect the president,” the timeline said.
As a fuller context of Sherrod’s speech emerged, Vilsack came under pressure. An e-mail at 8:35 p.m. that night said simply, “Rahm calling Secy now” — Obama’s then-Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel was phoning Vilsack.
At 2:07 a.m. Wednesday, the department released a statement from Vilsack saying he was willing to “consider additional facts.”
Later that day, the department was in full retreat, trying to make amends and manage the political fallout, the e-mails show.
Vilsack spoke to the Rev. Jesse Jackson and wanted to reach out to other “potential black pastor validators,” as one official called them. That effort found support from the White House, where Joshua Dubois, Obama’s informal spiritual advisor, offered to help.
Asked if he would help with a “tricky situation,” Dubois replied via e-mail: “Just let me know what you need.”