The Sharpiegate saga added another anonymous source-based chapter on Monday with The New York Times reporting that Commerce Sec. Wilbur Ross allegedly “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.” At least that’s what “three people familiar with the discussion” told the Times. Another unnamed source, a senior administration official, told the Times that they’ve got their story wrong, while a Commerce Department spokesperson told The Daily Wire that the claim is flat-out “false.”
The alleged threat by Ross to NOAA employees, the Times reports, “led to an unusual, unsigned statement later that Friday by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration disavowing the office’s own position that Alabama was not at risk.” That, in turn, sparked “widespread anger within the agency and drew criticism from the scientific community that NOAA, a division of the Commerce Department, had been bent to political purposes.”
The whole Alabama-Dorian-Sharpie scandal began last week with a seemingly innocuous tweet from Trump trying to keep residents of the Southern states apprised of the threat of Dorian, which grew to become a Category 5 at its height. In the tweet, Trump included Alabama among the states that might be impacted. He also made the claim during a press conference on the hurricane, suggesting that the most recent models included Alabama as potentially threatened, though by then the models did not include Alabama.
The claim was countered by the National Weather Service Birmingham, which tweeted out an emphatic correction: “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.”
Amid blowback from the media, Trump doubled and tripled down on the claim that he was correct — at least about initial reports. The “scandal” reached a new level when Trump presented a storm forecast map from the NOAA that appeared to have been altered with a Sharpie marker to include Alabama among the potentially threatened states (see image above).
According to three of the Times’ sources “familiar with his actions,” Ross phoned NOAA Acting Director Neil Jacobs two days later and told him “to fix the agency’s perceived contradiction of the president.” The sources said that when Jacobs objected, Ross told him that “the political staff at NOAA would be fired if the situation was not fixed.” The result, according to the Times, was the NOAA statement backing up Trump issued Friday:
From Wednesday, August 28, through Monday, September 2, the information provided by NOAA and the National Hurricane Center to President Trump and the wider public demonstrated that tropical-storm-force winds from Hurricane Dorian could impact Alabama. This is clearly demonstrated in Hurricane Advisories #15 through #41, which can be viewed at the following link.
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 Times reports, however, that while three of its sources said Ross’s threat is what prompted the statement, a senior administration official, also speaking on condition of anonymity, “said that the Birmingham office had been wrong and that NOAA had simply done the responsible thing and corrected the record.”
The politicization of the process was the other way around, the official said, stating that the NWS Birmingham tweet had been “motivated by a desire to embarrass the president more than concern for the safety of people in Alabama.” The unnamed official did not offer any proof for the assertion, the Times notes.
A spokesperson for the Commerce Department told The Daily Wire on Monday that the Times’ report claiming that Ross threatened to fire staff if they did not back Trump is false. “The New York Times story is false,” the spokesperson told The Daily Wire. “Secretary Ross did not threaten to fire any NOAA staff over forecasting and public statements about Hurricane Dorian.”
Meanwhile, other NOAA and NWS officials have been blasting staff members about caving to political pressure and providing inaccurate information. NOAA’s Acting Chief Scientist Craig McLean sent out an email to staff warning that he was looking for whoever might have violated the agency’s policies by publicly backing Trump in the press release Friday.
This story has been updated to include the statement from the Commerce Department spokesperson.