When hundreds of white supremacists and neo-Nazis terrorized the city of Charlottesville in August 2017, the VA’s chief diversity officer wanted to put out a strong statement of condemnation on VA news outlets, but her Trump-appointed boss blocked her.
John Ullyot, the Veterans Affairs chief communications officer, tried to block Georgia Coffey from issuing a statement condemning the “repugnant display of hate and bigotry by white supremacists, neo-Nazis and the Ku Klux Klan” at the Unite the Right rally, according to internal emails shared with VICE News and first reported by the Washington Post.
The heated back-and-forth between Ullyot and Coffey, who resigned soon after, came as President Trump infamously blamed “both sides” for the violence, which led to the death of Heather Heyer, a counterprotester, and dozens of injuries.
That same week, former VA Secretary David Shulkin, who is Jewish, made headlines when he appeared to break with the White House’s messaging in response to the Charlottesville violence. (Shulkin, a physician, was fired in March amid allegations of ethical lapses and internal conflicts over planned privatization for parts of the VA healthcare system.)
“I’m giving my personal opinions as an American and as a Jewish American,” Shulkin told reporters. “And for me in particular, I think in learning history, that we know that staying silent on these issues is simply not acceptable.”
According to the emails, Ullyot was confident that Shulkin’s comments were sufficient.
But Coffey, who now works as the senior manager for global diversity and inclusion at Lockheed Martin, pushed back, stressing that it was important the agency present a united front against white supremacy for its some 380,000 employees. Coffey also noted that her counterparts at other agencies, including the department of education, had shared similar messages with their workforces.
In response, Ullyot said he’d spoken to Shulkin on the matter, who had told him that VA officials should feel free to share their personal views on social media and other outlets, and offered an alternative, watered-down statement that removed all references to white supremacy, instead simply affirming commitment to “equal opportunity, diversity, and full inclusion for all in VA and beyond.”
Coffey again pushed back, saying she believed it was important she reference hate groups “specifically, so there is no confusion or equivocation in my message,” again noting that other agencies were making specific references. “I would want VA to be in the vanguard of this activity,” said Coffey. “While I appreciate your suggested edits, I fear it dilutes my message and fails to convey the sense of condemnation that I hope we all feel.”
A forceful condemnation of white supremacy may have been especially important for the VA given that studies have suggested that political extremism is a growing problem in the military. According to a survey published by the Military Times in October 2017, one in four troops say they’ve encountered white nationalists in the ranks. Nearly a decade ago, the FBI launched a national operation looking at the overlap between white supremacists or anti-government extremist groups, and veterans from Iraq and Afghanistan.
“Then-Secretary Shulkin dictated explicitly to John Ullyot how he wanted this particular issue handled,” VA Press Secretary Curt Cashour told VICE News in a statement. “Shulkin was adamant that VA employees keep their personal views on the Charlottesville issue out of official VA communications, as Shulkin had done himself in public comments two days beforehand.”
Shulkin, who is copied on the email thread, told the Post he doesn’t recall speaking with Ullyot about how the VA ought to handle the incident.
“I do feel strongly that all Americans have a right and duty to speak up with their personal views on important issues, as I did following Charlottesville," Shulkin also wrote in a message to VICE News.
“For former Sec. Shulkin to say that he doesn’t recall that he directed Ullyot to share his directive is belied by the paper trail contradicting his statement,” Cashour said. “This is more sour grapes from a dismissed doctor.”
VA Secretary Robert Wilkie, whom Trump nominated to replace Shulkin, praised Ullyot in a statement. “John Ullyot is on the VA team because he is committed to veterans and has spent a lifetime of exceptional service as a Marine and public servant,” Wilkie wrote.
Cover image: On Saturday, August 12, 2017, a veritable who's who of white supremacist groups clashed with hundreds of counterprotesters during the "Unite the Right" rally in Charlottesville, Va. (Photo by Michael Nigro/Pacific Press)(Sipa via AP Images)