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 — pushed for a forceful condemnation that was at odds with President Trump’s response, newly disclosed emails 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 Gen. Robert E. Lee from a local park and ended when a car plowed into a crowd of anti-racism 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 emails.
The emails 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 email 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 emails 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.
A 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.