Inside the Sherrod spin job

Internal emails show Obama officials' vain attempts to do damage control in the Shirley Sherrod case

By Justin Elliott
October 8, 2010 8:24AM (UTC)
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Shirley Sherrod answers questions during an interview at her home on Friday, July 23, 2010 in Albany, Ga. Sherrod was fired from her job at the Agriculture Department amid accusations of racism. (AP Photo/Steve Cannon) (AP)

Internal emails show the panicked thought process of top Department of Agriculture officials who hastily pressured Shirley Sherrod to resign in July after a misleadingly edited video was released by Andrew Breitbart that purported to show her admitting to racism. Sherrod was quickly vindicated -- and the Obama Administration apologized -- when the full video was released and showed her arguing against racism.

Obtained by Salon via the Freedom of Information Act, the internal emails and other documents fill out a picture of USDA officials scrambling to first get rid of Sherrod, and then, once they realized their error, to do damage control. Throughout there is an overwhelming concern with managing the media stories on the flap.


The Los Angeles Times, which also obtained the documents, has a good timeline here. Here are some tidbits from the emails and other documents, which we've posted in full below and which total nearly 400 pages. The page numbers in parantheses refer to the source of the quote, and the document from which it came:

  • In her resignation letter, Sherrod wrote: "I feel so disappointed that the Secretary and President let a misrepresentation of my words on the part of the Tea Party be the reason to ask me to resign. ... I submit my resignation but in doing so want to put the administration on notice that I will get the whole story out. My whole life speaks for my conmitment to Fairness whether white or black." (pg. 15, Vilsack)
  • In an internal timeline of events produced by the USDA, it's reported that Deputy Ag Secretary Kathleen Merrigan on Tuesday at 2 p.m. "expressed concern that Sherrod was attacking the Administration on TV and that our jobs as political appointees is to protect the President." (pg. 1, Merrigan)
  • On that Monday, Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack was "absolutely sick and mad over the S Sherrod issue," acccording to Krysta Harden, assistant secretary of agriculture. "He wants her immediately on Adm leave."  (pg. 49, Cook)
  • USDA officials thought it important to reach out to black members of Congress to help on damage control. John Berge, deputy assistant secretary for congressional relations, wrote Vilsack's chief of staff on Tuesday, July 20: "Can S[ecretary] call Clyburn today? It'll be a while, but we may need him to. We need his help with CBC outreach." The CBC is the Congressional Black Caucus. (pg. 133, Jett)
  • Denise Wilson, special assistant to the president in the office of legislative affairs, wrote to a few USDA officials on Wednesday, July 21, about the fear that Rep. Darrell Issa (R-CA), who has been a thorn in the White House's side, would seize on the story and "play the race card" (pg. 53, Ross):

"Just had a conversation with Ron Stroman of the Oversight committee. [Rep. Ed] Towns is very worried that USDA took action against Ms Sherrod w/o learning the facts which resulted in her being directed to resign. He has directed his staff to prepare a letter to Vilsak along this line. Ron said that Ranking Member Issa is expected to play into the media accounts that the WH was behind the move to take action against a black woman--and that Issa will play the race card against USDA and the NH -h1gh1ighting the Fact that we took action before the Facts were in. According to Ron, [who is in touch with her) Ms Sherrod does not appear to plan on coming back to USDA because she feels so unfairly treated."

  • The USDA press shop apparently reads Wonkette, with Chris Mather, public affairs director, taking note of the site picking up a statement they sent out on Sherrod on Monday, July 19 (pg. 9, Vilsack).

And here are the documents as released by the USDA. They are mostly emails and are labeled by the name of the official involved (usually either the sender or recipient of the email). Tom Vilsack, secretary of agriculture, here. Kathleen Merrigan, deputy secretary of agriculture, here. Cheryl Cook, deputy under secretary (and the woman who called Sherrod and asked her to resign), here. Karen Ross, chief of staff to Vilsack, here. Dallas Tonsager, under secretary for rural development, here. Carole Jett, deputy chief of staff, here and here.

Justin Elliott

Justin Elliott is a reporter for ProPublica. You can follow him on Twitter @ElliottJustin

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Shirley Sherrod War Room