COLUMBIA — Gov. Henry McMaster and his staff worked closely with some University of South Carolina trustees and staff to help retired Army Gen. Bob Caslen become the college's president — despite vocal student and faculty protests, emails and texts show.
The governor and his chief of staff Trey Walker were kept posted on projected vote counts and worked on strategies to win more positive media attention for Caslen, who had come under attack for making statements some considered insensitive and lacking enough academic experience despite leading West Point.
"It would be wiser to distribute talking points that refute accusations and buttress the argument for hiring," Walker told an adviser in one of the hundreds of messages released Friday by the governor's office. "You can use (his) bio information to accomplish both."
Soon before a planned board vote, USC trustee Dan Adams texted McMaster: "I've got a few people you need to call today to shore up." McMaster replied he would call soon. Later that same day, Adams boasts to the governor, "We got to have the vote but it looks good!!!"
Bill Kirkland, the school's economic development chief, gave the governor a list of trustees backing Caslen. And after providing the governor live updates on the USC board's 11-8 vote to hire Caslen in July, Kirkland texted McMaster: "Governor, I think we had a good day."
"Yes. Remember this day," McMaster replied.
McMaster's involvement in the presidential search raised concerns at South Carolina's largest college. USC's accreditors have sent a letter to the administration outlining potential violations from the governor's influence choosing a new university leader.
McMaster stepped up his involvement and started reaching out to trustees to get them to hold a vote on Caslen after a meeting with USC board chairman John von Lehe in late June. The governor met with von Lehe and three other trustees known to back Caslen on July 8, according to his calendar, a day before word of McMaster's involvement in the search became known publicly.
Brian Symmes, a spokesman for the governor, said McMaster was acting in his role as ex-officio chairman of the USC board because the emails and texts do not include threats if trustees voted against the general. No USC trustees have said the governor issued any threats.
Still, just like with board communications released by USC earlier this week, political overtones were evident.
"Our friends on the left played their part perfectly," Walker said.
Trustee Egerton Burroughs requested to serve on McMaster's 2022 reelection committee "in some capacity you feel appropriate" and asked McMaster to tell President Donald Trump, an ally of the governor, that he has "good higher ed advice" to offer about student loans. Burroughs also asked the governor about the potential for a shag dance museum in the Myrtle Beach area.
At one point, Walker used Columbia's Army base to pitch Columbia political and business leaders: "General Caslen will be great for USC. Fort Jackson must be protected for the Midlands economy."
Walker, who had bragged about storming a Democratic castle with Calsen's hiring, questioned the size of the protest against Caslen. He remarked to two trustees about a sparse crowd attending a student forum: "I've seen more students committed to crossing Assembly Street than this. This is what your colleagues fear?" The board vote took place over the summer when most students are not on campus.
Kirkland took a swipe at USC trustee Charles Williams, a vocal Caslen opponent. "Williams is out of control," Kirkland texted Walker.
Kirkland also expressed frustration with former USC President John Palms, who asked the board to re-open the search because Caslen did not have a doctorate degree. Kirkland called it an "out of touch with reality moment."
In an interview Friday, Kirkland did not back off from his comments. By backing Caslen, Kirkland said he was doing his job to win more military contracts for USC: "I really thought he could help us. We have not been getting our piece of the pie."
Williams questioned why a university employee like Kirkland was so involved in getting Caslen the job.
"This is a board decision," Williams said Friday. "If you're not on the board, you have no business being in it."
Building support was key to the effort. Kirkland told McMaster that Caslen had backing from many large donors, including billionaire Anita Zucker.
In a political twist, the governor's office was antsy to win public support from former Democratic state Rep. James Smith, who ran against McMaster for governor last year but had made connection with Caslen because of their shared military background.
Walker questioned why Smith, a major in the S.C. National Guard, had not spoken to reporters after several lawmakers and campus representatives held a news conference opposing Caslen.
"Checking to see what happened," USC trustee Thad Westbook texted back.
Mobley texted Walker to say he told Smith he would "be a hero" for working across the aisle. Smith was working "back channels" to win support, Mobley texted Walker, adding, "Have y'all spoken to him? He could be an asset."
Smith issued a statement supporting the retired general the day before the final board vote. Smith, who now works with USC's online college and is an adviser to Caslen, said Friday that he was taking a risk. Other prominent Democrats, including Columbia Mayor Steve Benjamin, were critical of McMaster's involvement in hiring a new USC president.
"I saw something that needed to be corrected," Smith said Friday. "He could be a great president for the university and I hated to see the partisanship. I was not seeing this as blue and red or left and right. I was thinking of this as garnet and black."
Jamie Lovegrove contributed to this report.
Clarification: This story has been updated to reflect that Columbia Mayor Steve Benjamin opposed Gov. McMaster's involvement in hiring a new USC president.