WASHINGTON — President Donald Trump told his staff that the nation’s leading weather forecasting agency needed to correct a statement that contradicted a tweet the president had sent wrongly claiming that Hurricane Dorian threatened Alabama, senior administration officials said.
That led White House acting chief of staff Mick Mulvaney to call Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross to tell him to fix the issue, according to the officials, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to talk publicly about the issue. Trump had complained for several days that forecasters from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration contradicted his Sept. 1 Alabama tweet, the officials said.
Mulvaney then called Ross, who was traveling in Greece, and told him that the agency needed to fix things immediately, the officials said. Mulvaney did not instruct Ross to threaten any firings or offer punitive actions. But Ross then called NOAA acting administrator Neil Jacobs, the officials said. That led to an unusual, unsigned statement from NOAA released on Sept. 6 that backed Trump’s false claim about Alabama and admonished the National Weather Service’s Birmingham, Alabama, division for speaking “in absolute terms” that there would not be “any” impacts from Dorian in the state. The Weather Service is an arm of NOAA, which is an agency within the Commerce Department. The New York Times first reported some elements of the White House involvement.
Trump told reporters Wednesday afternoon that he did not direct NOAA to issue such a statement. “No, I never did that,” he said. “I never did that. It’s a hoax by the media. That’s just fake news.”
But the apparent political pressure on a group of scientists who are supposed to be independent led House Democrats on Tuesday to launch an investigation into the Commerce Department’s involvement in NOAA’s unusual decision to side with Trump over its scientists.
Rep. Eddie Bernice Johnson, D-Texas, chairwoman of the House Committee on Science, Space and Technology, and Rep. Mikie Sherrill, D-N.J., chairwoman of the oversight and investigations subcommittee, sent a letter to Ross requesting information related to the department’s dealings with NOAA and Dorian.
The Science Committee, which has jurisdiction over NOAA, is requesting a briefing with Commerce Department staff who may have been involved in issuing instructions to NOAA that led to several directives being sent to Weather Service staff and culminated in the Sept. 6 unsigned statement.
The imbroglio began Sept. 1, when Trump tweeted that a number of states, including Alabama, were at risk from Dorian. Trump falsely asserted that the state would “most likely be hit (much) harder than anticipated” by the powerful hurricane. A short time later, the Weather Service’s Birmingham office tweeted: “Alabama will NOT see any impacts from # Dorian. We repeat, no impacts from Hurricane #Dorian will be felt across Alabama. The system will remain too far east.”
Jacobs has since said that the forecasters were not aware of the Trump tweet and were responding to a flood of calls from concerned residents.
“We are deeply disturbed by the politicization of NOAA’s weather forecast activities for the purpose of supporting incorrect statements by the president,” Johnson and Sherrill wrote to Ross. The House members want to know who ordered and helped draft the Sept. 6 statement and whether Commerce Department or White House staff members were involved in threatening NOAA leadership.
“We are committed to supporting the activities of the NWS and its dedicated staff. During your Senate confirmation hearing, you committed to allowing federal scientists to ‘be free to communicate data clearly and concisely’ and that you would ‘not interfere with the release of factual scientific data,’ ” Johnson and Sherrill wrote.
They noted that based on news reports, it appears that Ross violated the “values of scientific integrity.”
The Science Committee is requesting all records of communication among Commerce Department officials, NOAA and the White House between Sept. 1 and Sept. 9 pertaining to the president’s tweet and NOAA’s Sept. 6 statement.
The committee also wants to hear from three Commerce officials in particular by Sept. 30: NOAA deputy chief of staff Julie Kay Roberts, Commerce chief of staff Michael Walsh Jr. and Commerce policy director Earl Comstock.
At the time Trump sent the Sept. 1 tweet, the only hurricane forecast product that was showing potential impact in Alabama noted the probability of seeing tropical-storm-force winds, and even that showed about a 5 percent chance of such conditions in a small portion of the state. The official track forecast at the time of his tweet showed the storm moving up the southeastern coast, away from Alabama.
But between Sept. 1 and the statement of Sept. 6, Trump issued several more tweets trying to justify his original statement.
Rep. Paul Tonko, D-N.Y., who serves on the Science Committee and chairs a subcommittee on the House Energy and Commerce Committee, called for Ross to resign and for an investigation into whether Ross and other political appointees violated NOAA’s scientific integrity policy.
In addition to the Science Committee’s investigation, others are initiating probes into NOAA’s decision to back Trump’s claim. These include the Commerce Department’s inspector general and NOAA’s acting chief scientist.
A spokesman for the Weather Service confirmed Tuesday that the Commerce Department inspector general had launched a probe. The spokesman said two senior leaders had received notice of the investigation.
In addition, NOAA acting chief scientist Craig McLean wrote an email Sunday, saying he would open an investigation into whether the agency’s Sept. 6 statement, as well as previous emails to Weather Service staff, violated the agency’s scientific integrity policy.
“The content of this news release is very concerning as it compromises the ability of NOAA to convey lifesaving information necessary to avoid substantial and specific danger to public health and safety,” he wrote. “If the public cannot trust our information, or we debase our forecaster’s warnings and products, that specific danger arises.”
As a result, McLean told his staff that “I am pursuing the potential violations of our NOAA Administrative Order on Scientific Integrity.”
“I have a responsibility to pursue these truths,” he added. “I will.”
The scientific integrity policy includes a provision that states, “In no circumstance may any NOAA official ask or direct Federal scientists or other NOAA employees to suppress or alter scientific findings.”
These investigations are taking shape as outside groups call for inquiries and circulate letters of support for Weather Service scientists.
Jane Lubchenco, head of NOAA under President Barack Obama; Richard W. Spinrad, NOAA’s chief scientist under Obama; and Andrew Rosenberg, director of the Center for Science and Democracy at the Union of Concerned Scientists, filed a joint request for NOAA to initiate an investigation into possible violations of its scientific integrity policy, Lubchenco wrote in an email.
Meanwhile, a new tropical weather system is brewing, and this one may actually hit Alabama.