A series of newly disclosed emails showed a top White House appointee in the Department of Veterans Affairs reportedly pressing the agency’s chief diversity officer to not condemn white nationalists after 2017’s violent rally in Charlottesville, Va.
Georgia Coffey, a VA senior executive of diversity and race relations, was at cross-purposes with VA chief communications official John Ullyot after the diversity official pressured the agency to release a statement to denounce the “repugnant display of hate and bigotry by white supremacists, neo-Nazis, and the Ku Klux Klan,” according to emails acquired by the Washington Post on Wednesday.
The racially charged “Unite the Right” rally and counter-protests in Charlottesville in August 2017 left 32-year-old Heather Heyer dead after James Alex Fields Jr. drove his vehicle into a crowd of protesters. President Trump blamed “both” white nationalists and counter-protesters for the deadly encounter, without singling out far-rightists.
Coffey, a diversity expert, called the deadly rally “a tragic reminder that our work in civil rights and inclusion is not finished” in her drafted statement shared with the public affairs office following the alt-right rally. She felt her remarks should also be sent to concerned employees who make up more than 40 percent of VA’s 380,000 employees.
David Shulkin, who was VA’s secretary at the time, said he too was “outraged” by the violence in Charlottesville. Earlier that week, Shulkin also broke away from Trump by issuing a far more strongly worded condemnation of the far-right demonstrators.
Ullyot requested that Coffey stand easy on her additional comments about the incident according to the emails. He told the diversity official that he did not want any other comments to come from the agency.
A back-and-forth email exchange between Ullyot and Coffey ensued, with the Trump appointee telling Coffey he wanted the statement pared down.
Coffey later published her drafted statement under her name in a newsletter shared by the VA’s diversity office. However, it was withdrawn from the paper and she was reportedly disciplined. She soon retired from VA following the disagreement with Ullyot and was frustrated by the lack of support from Trump.
It was reported by an unidentified source that Ullyot was operating under a White House directive and taking orders from Shulkin.
Shulkin, who not only broke away from Trump and was stripped of his position in March, told the Post that he doesn’t remember having a conversation with Ullyot about the agency’s response.
“I’ve been pretty public about my opinions on the Charlottesville events … and of course I think all Americans should express their views,” said Shulkin.
The emails were reportedly sent to the news outlet by the American Oversight, a watchdog group which acquired them via the Freedom of Information Act.