NOAA officials feared layoffs after Trump’s hurricane claims, inspector general says

WASHINGTON – The head of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration felt his and others’ work would be in jeopardy if the agency failed to rebuke forecasters who contradicted President Trump’s inaccurate claim about the path of Hurricane Dorian, according to a government report. . .

The inspector general’s report examined the aftermath of Trump’s insistence that Hurricane Dorian was heading toward Alabama, which forecasters from the National Weather Service in Alabama contradicted. He found a politicized process that investigators described as “significant flaws” in which late-night White House lawsuits led to urgent intercontinental phone calls, text messages, and emails that culminated in a controversial NOAA statement criticizing forecasters.

Inspector General Peggy E. Gustafson largely blamed the top aides on Commerce Secretary Wilbur L. Ross Jr., whose agency NOAA oversees, and who was tasked with coordinating the unsigned September 6 statement suggesting that the president was right, and that Alabama forecasters had acted incorrectly by suggesting otherwise.

He called that statement “contrary to the apolitical mission” of the scientific agency and described it as “the end result of the events caused by an external demand imposed on Secretary Ross, specifically, a request by the White House for, in the words of the Secretary Ross, ‘close the gap’ between President Trump’s statement and the NWS Birmingham tweet. ”

He found no “credible evidence” that senior Commerce Department officials explicitly threatened to fire Neil Jacobs, then acting NOAA administrator. But Dr. Jacobs told investigators that he “definitely felt our jobs were on the line” if he refused to counter his own meteorologists.

“At a minimum, lack of communication or lack of clarity surrounded the key questions of whether someone’s job was at risk,” the report found.

On September 1, Trump wrote on Twitter that Dorian, who was approaching the east coast of the United States, would hit states, including Alabama, “harder than anticipated.” Forecasters at the Birmingham, Alabama National Weather Service office contradicted him by assuring the public that they were safe. “Alabama will NOT see any impact from Dorian,” they wrote.

On September 4, Mr. Trump appeared in the Oval Office with an altered map of Hurricane Dorian’s path, increasing scrutiny of the President’s insistence that Alabama was in danger and lending the episode the nickname “Sharpiegate”.

The pressure on Dr. Jacobs and his staff originated with Trump’s chief of staff Mick Mulvaney, who emailed Secretary Ross while he was in Greece on an agency trip the morning of September 5 asking him to investigate. the discrepancy. Mr. Mulvaney then followed up with an email.

Mr. Trump, Mulvaney said, “wants a correction or an explanation or both” for the forecasters’ statement, according to the report.

On September 6, NOAA released an unsigned statement calling the Birmingham office’s Twitter post “inconsistent with the odds of the best forecasting products available at the time.”

In a report last month, NOAA concluded that the statement from Dr. Jacobs’ office violated the agency’s code of conduct. That report did not address the actions of Secretary Ross or other Commerce Department officials.

In a series of September 6 text message exchanges that were included in the report, Michael Walsh, the Commerce Department chief of staff, suggested a way to portray the president’s statements about Alabama in a more favorable light.

An earlier forecast, which was out of date at the time of Trump’s Twitter post, had shown a small chance that Alabama would experience moderate Dorian winds. “I wonder if we build a narrative that validates Alabama’s early forecast,” Walsh wrote to Dr. Jacobs and Julie Roberts, then a senior NOAA political staff member.

Mr. Walsh proposed that Dr. Jacobs issue a statement, in which Dr. Jacobs would say that he had told Mr. Trump during a briefing the previous Sunday that “there was a strong possibility that the hurricane would hit Florida and hit the panhandle including Alabama “, in the language proposed by Mr. Walsh.

Mrs. Roberts replied to Mr. Walsh: “We did not tell him that Alabama was at stake on Sunday.”

In a response included in the report, Mr. Walsh called the report’s conclusions “completely without the endorsement of any of the evidence.”

Instead, the Inspector General selectively quotes the interviews, takes the facts out of context, portrays interrelated events without any evidence to establish a connection, and ignores the basic governance structures in the Department of Commerce, “wrote Mr. Walsh.

In a separate response, Sean B. Brebbia, the department’s acting deputy general manager for the Office of Special Projects, said the lack of formal recommendations in the report “shows that there were no major flaws in the Department’s handling of this situation.”

“The Department considers this matter to be closed,” Brebbia concluded.