Well, we now have a possible explanation why NOAA put out a bizarre, unsigned press release backing President Trump’s Hurricane Dorian claims and throwing its own scientists under the bus in the process.
The order came down from Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross, three unnamed sources told the New York Times.
Ross called up acting NOAA administrator Neil Jacobs on Friday and told him to reverse course on contradicting the president, according to the sources. When Jacobs put up a fight, Ross threatened to fire political staff at the agency, including Jacobs and his aides.
It was that phone call that led to NOAA’s press release later Friday saying that the Birmingham office of the National Weather Service was incorrect when it tweeted that the storm posed no threat to Alabama. The statement drew widespread condemnation from the meteorological community, including for former National Weather Service staff and the employee union.
This whole mess started more than a week ago when, as Dorian was barreling toward the U.S. coastline, Trump tweeted that Alabama could be affected by the storm. But, per official forecasts, there was only a very slight chance that Alabama would be hit by tropical storm–force winds. No one was forecasting that Alabama would be hit “harder than anticipated,” as Trump said.
Within an hour of Trump’s first tweet, the National Weather Service office in Birmingham tweeted, without naming the president, that the storm did not, in fact, pose a risk to the state. The media also noted that Trump had issued an unfounded weather forecast.
That led Trump to double-, triple-, and quadruple-down on his bizarre claim, most memorably the “Sharpiegate” scandal, where he showed a storm projection map that was apparently doctored with a black Sharpie to include Alabama, and continued to slam the “Fake News” media for calling him out on his false claim.
Now, it seems, contradicting the president’s misstatements is a potentially fireable offense, even at an agency whose role it is to provide the public with accurate storm forecasts.
NOAA’s chief scientist on Monday announced he’d be launching an investigation of the unsigned statement from the agency in support of the president’s false claim.
“This intervention to contradict the forecaster was not based on science but on external factors including reputation and appearance, or simply put, political,” Craig McLean, the acting chief scientist at NOAA, wrote in an email to staff that was obtained by the Washington Post. He said he would be looking for violations of the agency’s official scientific standards.
If there was a violation of the agency’s own standards, it was reportedly Ross who pushed NOAA to break its own rules.
For it's part, the Department of Commerce is disputing the Times' reporting. "The New York Times story is false. Secretary Ross did not threaten to fire any NOAA staff over forecasting and public statements about Hurricane Dorian," a spokesman told VICE News.
Cover: Wilbur Ross, North American Secretary of Commerce, at this fair, August 1, during 17 Latin American Leadership Forum. Photo: Mateus Bonomi / AGIF (via AP)