White House apologizes over race debacle amid criticism from CBC

White House apologizes over race debacle amid criticism from CBC

The White House apologized on Wednesday to Shirley Sherrod over her firing, but deflected blame over who was responsible to the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA).

White House press secretary Robert Gibbs said the White House was informed of the decision to ask Sherrod to resign and did not give an order, and USDA Secretary Tom VilsackThomas James VilsackUSDA: Farm-to-school programs help schools serve healthier meals OVERNIGHT MONEY: House poised to pass debt-ceiling bill MORE said the decision was his and his alone.

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Gibbs said the White House “was supportive of that decision” based on the information it had at the time.

Sherrod, who is black, was asked to resign after video of her saying she did not do everything in her power to help a white farmer who had come to her for help was posted on a conservative website. Sherrod has said she was told someone at the White House instructed Vilsack to push her out.

But Vilsack said he was under no White House pressure.

“I did not think before I acted, and for that reason, this poor woman has gone through a difficult time,” he said. “There was no pressure from the White House. I want to make sure everyone understands this was my decision and I regret having made it in haste.”

Vilsack said that he asked for Sherrod’s resignation only after seeing a transcript of the clipped video while he was traveling.

“This is a good woman — she has been put through hell,” he said. “I could have done and should have done a better job. I have learned from this experience; the whole department can learn from this experience ... The buck stops with me, as it should.”

The short clip of Sherrod’s comments suggested she discriminated against the white farmer, but the longer, unedited video made clear that the incident took place more than 20 years ago and that Sherrod was recounting it to demonstrate how her views had changed.

Gibbs said President Obama was briefed on the matter Tuesday morning and then again later on Tuesday. He said Obama has seen portions of the videotaped speech in question.

Gibbs blamed the lightning-fast media and political culture for the fact that administration officials did not view the full tape of Sherrod’s 43-minute speech before concluding that she should be asked to resign.

The family involved in the controversy has spoken out in Sherrod’s defense, saying they would have lost their farm without her help.

“Members of this administration, members of the media and different political factions on both sides of this made determinations on this without all the facts,” Gibbs said.

Gibbs, who apologized on “behalf of the administration” during his daily briefing, acknowledged that the White House tries to move quickly when responding to a controversy: “I think we live in a culture where things whip around. People want fast responses. We want to give fast responses.”

Sherrod, watching the press conference live on CNN with Gibbs on a split-screen, beamed as Gibbs directly apologized to her after he was told she was watching.

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Vilsack spoke to Sherrod late Wednesday afternoon to extend his apology and to offer her a “unique position” at USDA dealing with civil rights. He described Sherrod as being “extraordinarily gracious,” but she asked for several days to think about the offer.

The Agriculture secretary did not go into detail about the new position he offered to Sherrod, but said that “as a result of that experience, she has a unique set of skills in assisting USDA in turning the page on our civil rights chapter, which has been difficult.”

Changes will be made at USDA, specifically regarding a “more deliberative process” regarding personnel decisions, he said.

The NAACP, which initially stood by the White House, on Tuesday said it had been “snookered” by conservative commentator Andrew Breitbart, who initially posted the story and video on Sherrod’s remarks, and the Fox News Channel.

“With regard to the initial media coverage of the resignation of USDA official Shirley Sherrod, we have come to the conclusion we were snookered by Fox News and Tea Party activist Andrew Breitbart into believing she had harmed white farmers because of racial bias,” NAACP President Benjamin Jealous said Tuesday.

Gibbs did not criticize either Breitbart or Fox News specifically.

Members of the Congressional Black Caucus (CBC) were furious with the action by Vilsack, whom they criticized for jumping to conclusions and overreacting.

“It is now apparent that Secretary Vilsack did not have all of the facts available to him and overreacted,” CBC Chairwoman Barbara Lee (D-Calif.) said in a statement.

“The Congressional Black Caucus continues to believe that Ms. Sherrod was unfairly asked to resign, without due process, and should be reinstated immediately,” Lee added.

Vilsack met with members of the CBC on Wednesday night.

“Right now we’re trying to get the facts,” Lee said Wednesday afternoon. “We see exactly what happened. A decision was made without all the facts. So we’re trying to understand who did what when. And that is not clear to us yet.”

Lee sidestepped a question about whether the Oval Office shared some of the blame, saying again that she and other lawmakers were focusing first on getting to the bottom of what happened.

Rep. Darrell Issa (Calif.), the top Republican on the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, told The Hill that he may launch an investigation on the matter in the coming days.

— Jared Allen, Bob Cusack and Jordan Fabian contributed to this story. This story was posted at 2:56 p.m. and updated at 6:08 p.m. and 8:58 p.m.