A White House appointee to the Department of Veterans Affairs has sought to silence the agency's Diversity Officer who, in the aftermath of racist violence last year in Charlottesville, pleaded for an energetic sentence that went against President Trump's recently released response. email shows.
The tense exchange between Georgia Coffey, a specialist in workplace diversity and race relations, and John Ullyot, who remains VA's chief communications officer, was at a low point in Trump's presidency: when he blamed the murderous shock of several Charlottesville without distinguishing the white nationalists and the neo-Nazis who gathered there.
One woman was killed and dozens of others were injured during the August 2017 protest, which had begun after the city 's project to pull out the statue of Confederate General Robert E. Lee. a local park and had ended when a car had struck a crowd of anti-racist protesters. .
VA's secretary at the time, David Shulkin, made headlines that week, when he seemed to break up with Trump, telling reporters that the violence in Charlottesville had "outraged him" . Coffey, a senior career executive at VA, asked the agency's executives to issue a statement clearly stating that VA was opposed to such "hateful and disgusting fanaticism on the part of white supremacists." , neo-Nazis and Ku Klux Klan, "according to the newspaper. emails.
The emails were provided to the Washington Post by the American Oversight non-profit monitoring group, which obtained them through the Freedom of Information Act. The correspondence sheds new light on the politically sensitive decisions that federal agencies have faced as officials sought to reconcile the need to address employee concerns with the concern not to disrupt the White House.
Coffey wrote in an email to Ullyot that the agency's staff was disrupted by the turmoil of violence in Charlottesville. Minorities account for over 40% of VA's 380,000 employees, the second largest agency of the federal government.
Ullyot told Coffey to withdraw, show emails. A person familiar with their dispute, who spoke under the guise of anonymity, told The Post that Ullyot was enforcing a White House directive that officials were trying to contain the fallout from Trump's comments, and they did not want government officials to call more attention to the controversy.
VA spokesman Curt Cashour said the agency had received no indication from the White House.
Coffey, who declined to comment, retired from VA shortly after the debacle, frustrated by what she saw as a lack of support from the Trump administration, according to her former colleagues. She now works as a diversity and inclusion manager at Lockheed Martin.
Ullyot, a seasoned media professional who has worked for the Trump campaign, is the Assistant Secretary of VA Public and Intergovernmental Affairs. His exchange with Coffey was respectful and he noted that he acted according to Shulkin's instructions, according to his emails. Shulkin, whom Trump forced to leave the cabinet post in March, and other officials were copied on the posts.
At VA, the fallout from Charlottesville remains a sensitive subject. In response to a request for comment for this report, VA's current secretary, Robert Wilkie, issued a statement stating that "John Ullyot is in the VA team because he is dedicated to veterans and that he has dedicated his whole life to exceptional services as both Navy and Public. servant."
Ullyot forwarded the questions to the VA Public Affairs Office.
On August 17, a few days after the violence in Charlottesville, Coffey, then Assistant Deputy Secretary for Diversity and Inclusion, sent an e-mail to public affairs. She shared a draft of her statement and the remarks that accompanied it and asked for help in disseminating it to employees and the public.
In her remarks, she stated that the incident served as a "tragic reminder that our work on civil rights and inclusion was not over." She called on VA employees to pay attention to federal anti-discrimination policies and the agency's commitment to diversity and inclusion.
The response from a public affairs staff member said: "John Ullyot does not want to publish the message because the secretary had already made statements in the media on this topic earlier this week."
In a statement the day before, at the Trump Private Golf Club in Bedminster, New Jersey, Shulkin said he gave "my personal opinion as an American and as a Jewish American. . . . And for me in particular, I think that by learning the story, we know that staying silent about these issues is just not acceptable. "
Other senior administration officials echoed his feelings.
Coffey insisted on the opportunity, telling Ullyot that she had sent the statement to Shulkin and his chief of staff for them to review, according to their e-mail.
Ullyot went on to say that after consulting Shulkin, the secretary said, "We should all be free to share our personal view of recent events. . . Ullyot wanted to remove the more inflammatory language from the statement but told Coffey that she could keep the part that reminds employees of VA's "firm commitment" to equal opportunities and diversity in employment, show their emails.
Coffey told Ullyot that she feared that her changes "dilute my message and do not convey the feeling of condemnation that I hope we all feel," show the emails. She offered to remove Shulkin's name from the statement, but Ullyot told him that he and Shulkin had agreed not to use it.
Shulkin said in an interview that he did not remember his conversations with Ullyot about how VA should react to the incident. "I was pretty public about my views on the events in Charlottesville. . . and of course, I think all Americans should express their views, "he said.
Coffey staff worried about the risk of getting into trouble if it did not consider Ullyot's advice, according to other emails obtained under the Freedom of Information Act by the Project on Government Oversight, a group of surveillance that made this episode public last year. Staff suggested that she should calm down her comments, but Coffey refused. She posted the full remarks under her name in the monthly newsletter posted by the VA Diversity Office. Agency officials removed him and reprimanded him. She retired shortly after.
Cashour said that Shulkin "explicitly dictated to John how he wanted this particular issue to be dealt with". The secretary, Cashour said, was "adamant that VA employees keep their personal views on the Charlottesville issue outside of VA's official communications, as Shulkin himself had done." Public comments two days in advance. "John was just making sure Coffey understood and followed Shulkin's instructions."
The agency has been struggling with race-related issues in recent years.
VA has long had an Office of Diversity and Inclusion to help improve race relations within the administration. During the Obama administration, he appointed a senior official who would visit the country to hold conversations about the race. The manager, John Fuller, retired last year, citing a lack of support from the Trump administration.
In October, a senior official in the VA Office of Small Business and Disadvantaged Enterprises was forced to remove from his Washington office the portrait of Nathan Bedford Forrest, a Confederate General, and the first great wizard of the Ku Klux Klan, after offending his employees. The official said he was not aware of Forrest's affiliation to the hate group.
That same month, VA placed a sign in front of a conference room in the same office that employees had named for Stonewall Jackson, another Confederate general. Cashour said the officials were unaware that the piece had been named in Jackson's honor and had blamed a contractor employed by VA and his supervisor. The contractor was ordered to remove the sign but failed to do so, Cashour said.