FOI At Work: E-mails document Sherrod reaction in White House

A new trove of emails acquired by Judicial Watch show that the White House was intimately involved in managing the fallout from the Shirley Sherrod story, in which the USDA employee was forced to resign after Andrew Breitbart posted a fragmented video of one of her speeches to his website, Big Government.

At the time, then-White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs blamed Sherrod’s firing onAgriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack, and said the White House had been informed but not “consulted” about the firing. In fact, the White House was involved almost from the moment the story broke, and USDA officials understood some of the larger context of her statements before they forced her resignation.

The emails, acquired through a Freedom of Information Act request, show that the White House both knew about the story from the beginning and signed off on the wording of Vilsack’s statement explaining his acceptance of Sherrod’s resignation the evening it happened.

Some of this timeline was already revealed through an August 2010 Associated Press story, based on interviews with White House and USDA officials, that found “a greater level of White House involvement in the incident than officials initially let on.”

But the emails provide a newly detailed portrait of the panic that beset the USDA and White House as the story gathered steam – panic driven in part by fear of what Fox News would do with it. The emails also show how that panic pushed USDA officials to rush past the partial context that was already embedded in the original video out of worries over how the story would play.

The White House learned there was a problem in the middle of the afternoon of Monday, July 19, 2010. That morning, Breitbart posted a clip of Sherrod giving a speech to an NAACP audience in Georgia in which she recounted a story about not giving a white farmer the “full force of what I could do” back in 1986, writing that it was a “racist tale.”