Nothing should surprise America anymore when it comes to the lengths Trump administration officials will go to in order to defend the president when he says or does something indefensible.
But as jaded as the nation is after nearly three years living under the small thumb of a D-list, reality TV show host, news that NOAA officials were threatened for telling the truth about the likely path of Hurricane Dorian is disconcerting.
According to a trio of sources familiar with the matter who spoke to the New York Times, Wilbur Ross “threatened to fire top employees at NOAA on Friday after the agency’s Birmingham office contradicted President Trump’s claim that Hurricane Dorian might hit Alabama”.
That threat was responsible for the bizarre, unsigned statement NOAA issued later that day in support of the president’s dubious claims.
Trump has, of course, spent the last week engaged in an increasingly absurd effort to defend a September 1 tweet in which he said Alabama might be among states “hit (much) harder than anticipated” by the storm which, at the time, was rumbling through the Bahamas.
“BE CAREFUL!”, Trump screamed. “GOD BLESS EVERYONE!”
Subsequently, the National Weather Service in Birmingham issued a clarification of sorts. “Alabama will NOT see any impacts from #Dorian“, a tweet from the NWS’s official account read. “We repeat, no impacts from Hurricane #Dorian will be felt across Alabama, the system will remain too far east”.
And thus began one of the silliest episodes of Trump’s presidency.
Dorian is now just south of Greenland (which the US would own if Trump had his way), but the president is still trying to convince America that he was correct to suggest that Alabama was, for a time anyway, in the firing line.
Last week, Trump went so far as to take a Sharpie to a giant NOAA map, which he proudly displayed in the Oval Office as though nobody would notice his comically bad attempt to extend the storm’s projected path into Alabama, like a grade school student trying to turn an “F” into an “A” on an assignment before handing it to his parents.
“That was the original, ehh, chart”, he stammered, “and you can see it was going to hit not only Florida, but also Georgia, and the Gulf”.
Incidentally, Trump could have been thrown in jail for that stunt. “Whoever knowingly issues or publishes any counterfeit weather forecast or warning of weather falsely representing such forecast or warning to have been issued or published by the Weather Bureau, United States Signal Service, or other branch of the Government service, shall be fined under this title or imprisoned not more than ninety days, or both”, the applicable statute reads.
Ultimately, NOAA backed Trump over its own scientists in an unsigned statement issued late last week. “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”, NOAA said.
Now we know that statement was made under duress.
“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”, the Times reports, adding that although Jacobs objected, he was “told that the political staff at NOAA would be fired if the situation was not fixed”.
The Times goes on to explain that “unlike career government employees, political staff are appointed by the administration [and] they usually include a handful of top officials, such as Dr. Jacobs, and their aides”.
This raises a number of questions, not the least of which is whether the administration would take the same approach if Trump were to falsely claim that an incoming storm posed no danger when in fact it did. Or if NOAA will be compelled to disavow science in the interest of supporting the administration’s at times anti-scientific views on the causes of natural disasters and the likelihood that their intensity will increase over time.
Another official who spoke to the Times said the tweet from the Birmingham office was the product of conspiratorial forecasters who wanted to humiliate Trump – a deep “state” weather plot, apparently.
“The official provided no evidence to support that conclusion”, the Times flatly notes.