On September 1, the weekend before Hurricane Dorian made landfall in the U.S., Trump tweeted, "South Carolina, North Carolina, Georgia, and Alabama, will most likely be hit (much) harder than anticipated." That tweet prompted a response from the National Weather Service's Birmingham, Alabama, bureau, which hurried to correct one glaring error: "Alabama will NOT see any impacts from Dorian. We repeat, no impacts from Hurricane Dorian will be felt across Alabama." Those two tweets kicked off what's turned into a week-long campaign by Trump and his administration to prove that, actually, he was right the first time and anyone who thinks he should be embarrassed is really putting out fake news. While the whole affair started out as one more example of Trump being defiant in the face of reality, it's quickly turning into a corruption scandal all its own.
Trump doesn't react well to being told he's wrong, and this was no exception. Last Monday, after ABC News published a story about Trump's incorrect Alabama claims, he fumed on Twitter about the "phony hurricane report by lightweight reporter," adding, "under certain original scenarios, it was in fact correct that Alabama could have received some 'hurt.' Always good to be prepared! But the Fake News is only interested in demeaning and belittling." Two days later, he posted out-of-date projections of Dorian's trajectory, some of which showed it passing through Alabama. He wrote, "This was the originally projected path of the Hurricane in its early stages. As you can see, almost all models predicted it to go through Florida also hitting Georgia and Alabama. I accept the Fake News apologies!" The map also showed Dorian potentially hitting Louisiana, Mississippi, and Tennessee, though Trump never mentioned those states.
Trump has continued tweeting maps and attacks on the media's coverage of his factually wrong claims. As recently as Saturday, he posted, "I would like very much to stop referring to this ridiculous story, but the LameStream Media just won’t let it alone."
His crusade against the National Weather Service reached ridiculous heights last Wednesday, when he appeared in the Oval Office with a map of Dorian's path, dated August 29. The map showed Dorian hitting Florida, and Trump doodled a small bubble with a Sharpie, extending the hurricane's path by a small nub onto Alabama's coast, setting off another round of coverage and memes on "Sharpiegate."
Still, that wasn't the full extent of his administration's efforts to help him save face. According to a new story from The New York Times, Secretary of Commerce Wilbur Ross actually threatened to fire members of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) if they didn't refute the National Weather Service's correction. (The National Weather Service is under the NOAA, which is itself part of the Department of Commerce.) Per the Times:
Mr. Ross, the commerce secretary, intervened two days later, early last Friday, according to the three people familiar with his actions. Mr. Ross phoned Neil Jacobs, the acting administrator of NOAA, from Greece where the secretary was traveling for meetings and instructed Dr. Jacobs to fix the agency’s perceived contradiction of the president. Dr. Jacobs objected to the demand and was told that the political staff at NOAA would be fired if the situation was not fixed, according to the three individuals, who requested anonymity because they were not authorized to discuss the episode.
NOAA then issued an unsigned letter disavowing the Birmingham office's claim that Alabama was not at risk, saying, "The Birmingham National Weather Service’s Sunday morning tweet spoke in absolute terms that were inconsistent with probabilities from the best forecast products available at the time." The agency also distributed a memo instructing personnel to "only stick with official National Hurricane Center forecasts if questions arise from some national level social media posts which hit the news this afternoon" and not to "provide any opinion." One NOAA meteorologist told The Washington Post, "This is the first time I’ve felt pressure from above to not say what truly is the forecast." He added, "One of the things we train on is to dispel inaccurate rumors and ultimately that is what was occurring—ultimately what the Alabama office did is provide a forecast with their tweet, that is what they get paid to do."
The prioritization of a leader's ego over accurate public information on a weather emergency drew comparisons to authoritarian countries. "Yup, the Commerce Secretary threatened to fire leaders of a scientific agency for daring to tell the truth about a WEATHER forecast, because President Trump was wrong about it. It's like an old Soviet joke, except in 2019 America," tweeted The New Yorker's Susan Glasser.
A spokesperson for the Commerce Department told the Times that Ross never threatened to fire anyone over the corrections, but refused to answer when asked if Ross had indeed been in touch with Jacobs or if he'd instructed the NOAA not to refute the president. That aside, it's no secret that the Trump administration has been aggressively purging scientists: According to an executive order Trump signed earlier this year, the entire federal government has to cut its 1,057 scientific advisory committees to a maximum of 350 by the end of September.
The Commerce Department's Inspector General announced that it will be investigating the NOAA's Friday letter that claimed Alabama was still at risk from Dorian. In a statement, Inspector General Peggy E. Gustafson said that the National Weather Service "must maintain standards of scientific integrity" and that the current circumstances "call into question the NWS’s processes, scientific independence, and ability to communicate accurate and timely weather warnings and data to the nation in times of national emergency."
An anonymous senior administration official told the Times that the National Weather Service was, for some reason, deliberately lying about the threat posed to Alabama in order to embarrass the president. The official gave no evidence, and Hurricane Dorian never hit Alabama.
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Originally Appeared on GQ