Steve King unsure how best to exploit USDA scandal

Representative Steve King rarely misses a chance to accuse the Obama administration of racism, but this week he seems uncertain about the best way to exploit the fiasco over USDA official Shirley Sherrod’s dismissal. King told Politico yesterday that he sympathized with Sherrod, having been misquoted himself.

King suggested Sherrod has changed her views over the past quarter-century and should get her job back.

“Also, I think it’s interesting that we don’t have it clear whether [U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Tom] Vilsack fired her or the White House fired her,” King added. “The president was going to be the first post-racial president but his whole presidency is becoming about race.”

But in a talk radio appearance, King took a different tack, saying Sherrod’s hiring by the USDA should be investigated. He noted Sherrod was a claimant in the Pigford case (a discrimination lawsuit black farmers brought against the USDA). Apparently King wants Americans to believe the Pigford case settlement resulted in too much money going to too many black farmers.

In other recent King news, to no one’s surprise he joined the new Tea Party Caucus that Michele Bachmann founded in the U.S. House of Representatives. Bachmann and King are ideological soulmates who share a press secretary. To see who else became a founding Tea Party caucus member, check this list on the Mother Jones blog. You’ll find some famous loudmouths (Joe “You Lie!” Wilson) and “big idea” folks like Paul Broun, who wants to repeal the constitutional amendments that permit the federal income tax and the direct election of U.S. senators.

The Tea Party caucus isn’t just a haven for fringe-y House wingnuts, though. Bachmann’s group attracted GOP leaders including National Republican Congressional Committee Chairman Pete Sessions and House Republican Conference Chairman Mike Pence. Whether they’ll manage to harness tea party energy for the bulk of GOP establishment candidates remains to be seen.

Meanwhile, heavy rain continues to batter Iowa this week. I see King joined Iowa’s other U.S. House members in asking President Obama to “quickly approve Gov. Chet Culver’s request for a disaster declaration for Iowa counties” affected by flooding. However, I can’t find any press release from King’s office explaining his vote last week against extending the federal flood insurance program.

UPDATE: King tweeted around 1:30 on Thursday afternoon, “Shirley Sharrod was involved in a collective farm in Georgia. Nation’s largest ($13 million) recipient in Pigford Farms($2 billion) fraud.” He got that information from talk radio host Ben Shapiro.

SECOND UPDATE: King notes in a press release that he has signed on to a “friend of the court” brief defending the state of Arizona’s new immigration law. The U.S. Department of Justice has filed suit against that law. On Fox News yesterday, King gave a theological justification for his position on immigration:

God gave us rights. Our founding fathers recognized that. It’s in our Declaration [of Independence]. It’s the foundational document of America, and God made all nations on earth and He decided when and where each nation would be. And that’s out of the Book of Acts and it’s in other places [in the Bible]. So we can’t be a nation if we don’t have a border, and if we grant amnesty, we can’t define it as a border any longer or ourselves as a nation as a border any longer.

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Vilsack caught up in beltway scandal du jour (updated)

Rarely are secretaries of agriculture near the center of attention in Washington, but Tom Vilsack is in the hot seat after abetting the right-wing noise machine’s latest attempt to undermine the Obama administration. On Monday an African-American US Department of Agriculture official, Shirley Sherrod, was sacked because a right-wing website made her appear to have discriminated against a white farmer.

Sherrod, USDA’s rural development director for Georgia, said she was ordered to resign on Monday after a video, posted on one of Andrew Breitbart’s conservative sites, showed her saying she had not given a white farmer her “full force.”

The NAACP later posted the full, unedited video of Sherrod speaking at an NAACP Freedom Fund Dinner, and it showed the remarks had been taken out of context in the version posted by Breitbart. Breitbart had said that he had posted the full version he was given. The farmer, Roger Spooner, now 87, appeared on CNN from his Georgia home and said Sherrod had been “helpful in every way – she saved our farm.”

Vilsack should know better than to validate a phony right-wing narrative, but he’s never been a happy partisan warrior. I’m not surprised he kicked a USDA official to the curb instead of waiting to hear all the facts. He probably hoped to kill this “news” story before it gained momentum. The problem is, he has created more incentive for Obama’s opponents to gin up fake scandals. Vilsack also damaged his own reputation. Lots of people will want answers to the questions Greg Sargent asks today:

Now that the full Shirley Sherrod video has been released, vindicating her completely, Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack is  promising to undertake a review of her firing. So maybe he will re-instate her after all.

But it isn’t enough for Vilsack to reinstate her. People should demand that his review include an explanation for his own decision to fire her. We need to hear his justification for the decision to ax this woman before all the facts were in, on the strength of nothing more than an Andrew Breitbart smear.

Did Vilsack make any effort to learn more about her speech before giving her the push? If not, why not? Sherrod says she told top USDA officials that the full speech would vindicate her. Did anyone at USDA give her protestations even a passing listen? Did anyone try to obtain video of the full speech? If not, why not? Why was Breitbart’s word alone allowed to drive such a high-profile decision?

People should also demand that the White House weigh in publicly on what happened here. The White House has only discussed this via anonymous leaks, and this morning, officials are conveniently leaking word that the White House prodded Vilsack to reconsider Sherrod’s firing. That’s nice, but was the White House told in advance that the firing was about to happen, and if so, why did it allow the firing to proceed?

The White House looks bad for supporting Vilsack’s rush to judgment, then backing off when the full video of Sherrod’s remarks appeared. But ultimately, this was Vilsack’s mistake. Let’s hope he learned the right lessons from it.

UPDATE: Charles Lemos posted the full video of Sherrod’s speech and his reaction to it. It’s worth a read.

SECOND UPDATE: Vilsack has apologized and offered Sherrod another USDA position. I’ve posted the video after the jump. Good for him; it’s not always easy for politicians to admit a mistake. TPMDC reported today,

In response to a question from TPMDC, Vilsack called the debacle “a teachable moment for me.” He admitted that Sherrod had received advance notice of Breitbart’s intention to (mis)use the clip and had attempted to inform her superiors, including Vilsack, by email — but the email did not get through, and thus her superiors’ first contact with her regarding the incident was after Breitbart’s release of the clip.

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