A top White House appointee at the Department of Veterans Affairs sought to silence the agency’s chief diversity officer, who — in the aftermath of last year’s racially charged violence in Charlottesville, Va. — pushed for a forceful condemnation that was at odds with President Trump’s response, newly disclosed e-mails show.
The tense exchange between Georgia Coffey, a nationally recognized expert in workplace diversity and race relations, and John Ullyot, who remains VA’s chief communications official, occurred during a low point in Trump’s presidency: when he blamed ‘‘many sides’’ for the deadly clash in Charlottesville without singling out the white nationalists and neo-Nazis who rallied there.
One woman was killed and dozens were injured in the August 2017 protest, which began over the city’s plan to remove a statue of Confederate General Robert E. Lee from a local park and ended when a car plowed into a crowd of antiracism protesters.
VA’s secretary at the time, David Shulkin, made headlines that week when he appeared to break with Trump, telling reporters the violence in Charlottesville ‘‘outraged’’ him. Coffey, a career senior executive at VA, pressed the agency’s leaders to issue a statement making it clear that VA stood against such a ‘‘repugnant display of hate and bigotry by white supremacists, neo-Nazis, and the Ku Klux Klan,’’ according to the e-mails.
The e-mails were provided to The Washington Post by the nonprofit watchdog group American Oversight, which obtained them via the Freedom of Information Act. The correspondence sheds new light on the politically delicate decisions federal agencies faced as officials sought to balance the need to address employee concerns with a desire not to upset the White House.
A statement from VA leaders was necessary, Coffey wrote in one e-mail to Ullyot, because the agency’s workforce was unsettled by the uproar caused by the Charlottesville violence. Minorities make up more than 40 percent of VA’s 380,000 employees, the federal government’s second-largest agency.
Ullyot told Coffey to stand down, the e-mails show. A person familiar with their dispute, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, told the Post that Ullyot was enforcing a directive from the White House, where officials were scrambling to contain the fallout from Trump’s comments, and they did not want government officials to call further attention to the controversy.
VA spokesman Curt Cashour said the agency received no such guidance from the White House.
Coffey, who declined to comment, retired from VA shortly after the dust up, frustrated with what she felt was a lack of support from the Trump administration, according to her former colleagues. She now works as senior manager for diversity and inclusion at Lockheed Martin.
Ullyot, a seasoned media professional who worked on Trump’s campaign, is VA’s assistant secretary for public and intergovernmental affairs. His exchange with Coffey was respectful, and he noted that he was acting at Shulkin’s direction, according to his e-mails. Shulkin, whom Trump forced out of the Cabinet post in March, and other officials were copied on the messages.
At VA, the fallout from Charlottesville remains a sensitive subject. In response to a request seeking comment for this report, VA’s current secretary, Robert Wilkie, issued a statement affirming that ‘‘John Ullyot is on VA team because he is committed to veterans and has spent a lifetime of exceptional service as a Marine and public servant.’’
Ullyot referred questions to VA’s public affairs office.
On Aug. 17, days after the Charlottesville violence, Coffey — then deputy assistant secretary for diversity and inclusion — e-mailed public affairs. She shared a draft of her statement and accompanying remarks, and requested help disseminating it to employees and the public.
Her remarks said the incident served ‘‘as a tragic reminder that our work in civil rights and inclusion is not finished.’’ She called on VA employees to be mindful of federal antidiscrimination policies and the agency’s commitment to diversity and inclusion.
The response from a staffer in public affairs said, ‘‘John Ullyot does not want to post the message, as the Secretary previously made statements in the news media on this topic earlier this week.’’
In an emotional statement the day before, at Trump’s private golf club in Bedminster, N.J., Shulkin said he gave ‘‘my personal opinions as an American and as a Jewish American . . . And for me in particular, I think in learning history, that we know that staying silent on these issues is simply not acceptable.’’
Other top administration officials echoed his sentiments.
Coffey urged expediency, telling Ullyot that she had sent the statement to Shulkin and his chief of staff for their review, according to their e-mail exchange.
Ullyot then indicated that after consulting with Shulkin, the secretary said that ‘‘we should all feel free to share our own personal views on the recent events . . . as he did.’’ Ullyot wanted to remove the statement’s more incendiary language but told Coffey she could keep the part that reminded employees of VA’s ‘‘strong commitment’’ to equal employment opportunity and diversity, their e-mails show.
Coffey told Ullyot that she worried his edits would ‘‘dilute my message and fail to convey the sense of condemnation that I hope we all feel,’’ the e-mails show. She offered to remove Shulkin’s name from the statement, but Ullyot told her that he and Shulkin had agreed not to use it.
Shulkin said in an interview that he does not recall his conversations with Ullyot about how VA should respond to the incident. ‘‘I’ve been pretty public about my opinions on the Charlottesville events . . . and of course I think all Americans should express their views,’’ he said.