WASHINGTON — As a racial firestorm erupted last month, the White House buzzed with questions and concerns about the forced ouster of a black Agriculture Department employee. But no one stepped in to stop Secretary Tom Vilsack from pressuring Shirley Sherrod to resign, a decision administration officials from President Barack Obama on down now say was a mistake.
Interviews with White House and Agriculture Department officials reveal a greater level of White House involvement in the incident than officials initially let on, with staff making calls to Capitol Hill and civil rights groups, and senior administration officials speaking to Vilsack. Most notably, White House staff expressed concerns early on that Sherrod's remarks about race in an edited video clip may have been taken out of context.
Despite the concerns, a White House official said no one in the West Wing asked the Agriculture Department to hold off in seeking Sherrod's resignation until a full tape or transcript of her remarks could be found. The official said the White House didn't want to get involved in what it considered to be a USDA personnel matter.
The official insisted on speaking anonymously in order to reconstruct what happened in the 36-hour period between Sherrod's resignation and the Agriculture Department's decision to reconsider and offer her a new job.
A week before the controversy reached Washington, Sherrod started receiving e-mails from people who saw a clip of her remarks posted on two websites, HotAir.com and USActionNews.com. The heavily edited video showed Sherrod speaking about an incident that took place more than two decades ago in which, she said, she didn't help a white farmer as much as she could have.
Sherrod tried to alert Vilsack and Deputy Secretary Kathleen Merrigan, but the e-mail addresses she used were either outdated or rarely checked, a USDA official said, also speaking on the condition of anonymity to discuss the timeline of events. Another e-mail went to a midlevel staffer who didn't alert senior officials until the controversy peaked the following week.
By Monday, July 19, the two-minute, 38-second video had been posted again by conservative blogger Andrew Breitbart, catching the attention of senior USDA officials who alerted Vilsack while he was traveling in Ohio. After watching a news story about the tape, Vilsack decided that Sherrod should be placed on administrative leave.
Because Sherrod was a political appointee, the department informed the White House Office of Presidential Personnel, which handles executive nominations and appointments.
The White House official said staffers in the personnel office quickly raised concerns about whether the video accurately reflected the totality of Sherrod's remarks and began trying to locate a full transcript. The official said those concerns were shared with the USDA, but no attempt was made to intervene. Senior White House officials, including press secretary Robert Gibbs, Communications Director Dan Pfeiffer and Deputy Chief of Staff Jim Messina, also were briefed on the incident.
The situation escalated quickly throughout Monday evening. USDA Deputy Undersecretary Cheryl Cook, the official who told Sherrod she was on administrative leave, made two more calls: one asking Sherrod if she was willing to resign and another asking if she could submit her resignation in writing by the end of the day. Sherrod agreed to both, though she wrote in her e-mailed resignation that her words were taken out of context and vowed to clear her name.
Vilsack issued a statement exclusively to media that had inquired about the video saying he had accepted Sherrod's resignation, stressing that his department had "zero tolerance for discrimination."
Meanwhile, the White House started making calls to Capitol Hill and African-American groups to brief them on the incident. The White House Office of Public Engagement, overseen by senior Obama adviser Valerie Jarrett, contacted the NAACP and within hours, the civil rights group issued a statement of support for Vilsack's decision. Jarrett did not call the NAACP, the White House official said, declining to identify who did.
Both the White House and the NAACP say the civil rights group issued the statement voluntarily, not under pressure from the administration.
On Tuesday morning, Sherrod began a media blitz to tell her side of the story, appearing on cable news shows insisting not only that the video didn't accurately reflect her full remarks, but also that Cook told her the White House wanted her out — an assertion both White House and USDA officials said wasn't true.
As Sherrod's story unfolded, the White House official said staff there became increasingly concerned that no one in the administration had seen a transcript or tape of the full remarks. The NAACP shared those concerns, telling the White House that it was reconsidering its earlier statement of support.
The White House official said it's unclear whether Obama was told about these concerns when he was first briefed on the incident Tuesday afternoon. In the briefing, he told staff that he trusted Vilsack and stood by the secretary's decision.
Vilsack stood by his original decision as well. While he also had not seen a full transcript of Sherrod's remarks, he issued a second statement Tuesday afternoon that said the controversy surrounding her comments could, rightly or wrongly, cause people to question her decisions as a federal employee and lead to lingering doubts about civil rights at the agency, which has a troubled history of discrimination.
Despite that explanation, the White House continued to be unsettled by Sherrod's version of events, by the white farmers at the center of her story who were now voicing support for Sherrod and by the continued lack of a full transcript. Around 8 p.m. Tuesday, White House chief of staff Rahm Emanuel called Vilsack to suggest that he reconsider accepting Sherrod's resignation.
White House chief counsel Bob Bauer, White House Cabinet Secretary Chris Lu and spokesman Gibbs also spoke with Vilsack over the course of the evening.
At some point that evening, Vilsack also called others for advice, including civil rights advocate Jesse Jackson. A USDA official said he spoke to several members of Congress and leaders in the civil rights community as well. As those calls were being made, the NAACP posted a full video of Sherrod's remarks, which showed her speaking to an NAACP group about racial reconciliation and overcoming her initial reluctance to help the white farmer.
In the early hours of Wednesday morning, Vilsack issued a statement saying he planned to reconsider in light of new information.
Top officials, including Obama and Vilsack, and television commentators spent much of the next week apologizing to Sherrod. Vilsack offered her a new job at the department, in the office of African-American outreach, and Obama said he hoped she would accept the post.
Sherrod hasn't decided whether she'll accept the offer.
Associated Press writer Mary Clare Jalonick contributed to this report.