In 2010, the late Andrew Breitbart posted a video of part of a speech that Shirley Sherrod, then a U.S. Department of Agriculture employee, gave at an NAACP event. In the video, she seemed to be saying she had discriminated against white farmers who needed aid from the government. The video spread like wildfire, and one of its most widely disseminated versions omitted crucial context -- the fact that her comment was part of a larger story about learning racial tolerance and understanding.
Obama administration officials immediately overreacted to the edited video and forced Sherrod to resign from her job. They were later forced to apologize -- not just Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack, but also White House spokesman Robert Gibbs, who offered the explanation that "a lot of people involved in this situation, from the government's perspective on through, acted without all the facts."
But emails newly unearthed by Judicial Watch suggest that some government officials were in fact aware of the context of Sherrod's remarks, but feared that they still looked bad. This perception problem could have been the real reason for her firing.
On the afternoon of July 19, 2010, hours after the videos were first posted, USDA communications director Chris Mather sent an email briefing White House aides on the situation (emphasis mine):
"Video of GA Rural Development State Directo [sic] saying at a NAACP meeting that when a white farmer came to her for services, she knowingly didn't give him all the help he needed. She goes on to make it a larger case about understanding race... but looks bad. O'Reilly just called us for statement."
The Department of Agriculture did not respond to a request for comment left around 4 p.m. Thursday afternoon.
More broadly, the new emails, available here, reveal that there was also much more White House involvement in crafting the message around Sherrod's ouster than the White House had previously admitted.
A few samples from the JW release:
- When informed on July 19, 2010, about Sherrod’s statements at the NAACP meeting, then-White House spokesperson Reid Cherlin emailed then-USDA Director of Communications Chris Mather “[H]as she been fired?”
- In an effort to emphasize what Vilsack needed to say to the press former Special Assistant to the President and White House Cabinet Communications Director Tom Gavin emailed to Mather on July 19, 2010, “Just [t]o be clear, this is the Secretary’s quote, right?” Mather responded, “I think it should be, don’t you,” to which Gavin replied, “absolutely.”
- As events unfolded on July 19, 2010, Mather emailed Gavin at the White House, “Did you connect with the NAACP?” Gavin responded, “OPE [Office of Public Engagement] did. We’ll be fine.”
Within the documents released to Judicial Watch is an email chain indicating that Gavin oversaw the writing and obtained counsel approval of the announcement by Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack on July 19, 2010, in which Vilsack stated, “Today, I accepted Ms. Sherrod’s resignation. There is zero tolerance for discrimination at USDA, and I strongly condemn any act of discrimination against any person.” In approving the copy, Gavin indicated in a July 19, 2010, email “We are good with this version on this end.”