What’s most amazing about this story, which began with nothing more important than whether a presidential tweet had accidentally included outdated information about a storm’s projected path?
The fact that it’s somehow now in its second week, thanks to Trump’s and the media’s mutual refusal to concede?
The fact that it’s caused a political crisis at NOAA and NWS, two federal agencies focused on … weather?
Or the fact that, against all odds, this has now blossomed into a genuine scandal involving a member of the cabinet allegedly threatening to fire scientists for the crime of contradicting the president?
It’s become one of the most revealing and embarrassing episodes of Trump’s presidency precisely because the stakes are so low. There’s no money involved here, no electoral repercussions next fall, nothing that would obviously explain why the White House is completely committed to “winning” the argument. It’s pure vanity. Trump tweeted on September 1 that Alabama could be affected by the storm; that information was outdated so the Birmingham chapter of the National Weather Service politely contradicted him in its own tweet; and here we are eight days later, with the NYT breaking news about Wilbur Ross warning that heads would roll at NOAA if they didn’t take the president’s side in that dispute.
There’s no reason for any of it except vanity on Trump’s part and sycophancy on Ross’s. And so it’s become a measure of just how deep the Trump cult of personality within the administration extends. Is it so deep and petty that professional meteorologists will be forced to alter their own forecasts retroactively to protect the president’s ego?
Mr. Ross, the Commerce Secretary, intervened … early last Friday, according to the three people familiar with his actions. 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.
Dr. Jacobs objected to the demand and was told that the political staff at NOAA would be fired if the situation was not fixed, according to the three individuals, who requested anonymity because they were not authorized to discuss the episode. Unlike career government employees, political staff are appointed by the administration. They usually include a handful of top officials, such as Dr. Jacobs, and their aides.
Jacobs caved. NOAA issued a strange statement on Friday night, just when it seemed like the hurricane story was petering out, criticizing the NWS Birmingham office for having spoken “in absolute terms that were inconsistent with probabilities from the best forecast products available at the time” when it corrected Trump. You see, there was a 5-10 percent chance of tropical-storm-force winds in a tiny corner of Alabama when Trump tweeted on September 1 that the state would “most likely be hit (much) harder than anticipated.” To Trump and Ross, that means Trump was technically sort of right. To everyone else, it means Trump’s tweet way overhyped the threat to the state based on stale info and the NWS crew in Birmingham tried to calm people by reassuring them there was no threat. NOAA’s managers sided with Trump and Ross because, at the end of the day, they’ve got to pay the rent.
The chief scientist at NOAA is now promising an internal investigation for the understandable reason that a weather bureau that makes forecasts based on the president’s mood instead of the actual weather isn’t serving the public. Presumably the next phase in this ridiculous story is Trump or Ross firing this guy for daring to try to protect the integrity of the agency’s meteorological methods:
“The NWS Forecaster(s) corrected any public misunderstanding in an expert and timely way, as they should,” [acting chief scientist Craig] McLean wrote. “There followed, last Friday, an unsigned news release from ‘NOAA’ that inappropriately and incorrectly contradicted the NWS forecaster. My understanding is that this intervention to contradict the forecaster was not based on science but on external factors including reputation and appearance, or simply put, political.”
He also wrote that “the content of this news release is very concerning as it compromises the ability of NOAA to convey life-saving information necessary to avoid substantial and specific danger to public health and safety.”
“If the public cannot trust our information, or we debase our forecaster’s warnings and products, that specific danger arises,” McLean wrote.
As a result, McLean told his staff that “I am pursuing the potential violations of our NOAA Administrative Order on Scientific Integrity.”
I’d love to hear the conversation in Pelosi’s office about this. The entire saga is so preposterously petty that there may be no way to hold hearings on it without Democrats coming off as ridiculous as Trump. Imagine the casual voter who hasn’t followed the story trying to process it. “They’re investigating Trump for … tampering with weather reports? What?”
On the other hand, you’ve got the Commerce secretary instructing a scientific agency to undermine the conclusions of one of its own branches for nakedly political reasons. If Trump decides tomorrow that the moon is made of green cheese, is NASA duty-bound to issue a statement saying “it’s possible” so that the president doesn’t lose face? Does the CDC have to adjust its conclusions about the safety of vaccines because Trump has expressed skepticism about that in the past? Democrats would be laughed at if they tried to impeach Trump over this. If they tried to impeach Ross, I’m not so sure.
As chance would have it, the National Weather Association’s annual conference is happening today — in Alabama — and the head of the NWS, Louis Uccellini, was invited to speak. Would he side with the Birmingham office of NWS that contradicted Trump or the people at NOAA who criticized the office after being threatened by Ross?
.@NWSDirector offers a very impassioned defense of the @NWSBirmingham, stating they did exactly what they were supposed to do. The office received a standing ovation. So did Louis. The word “integrity” was used a lot. Kudos to him. #nwas19
— Matt Lanza (@mattlanza) September 9, 2019
He asked employees from the Birmingham office to stand for a standing ovation and they got one, so that’s how this is playing within NWS. Fun fact: Jacobs, the NOAA administrator who reportedly bowed to Wilbur Ross, is set to speak tomorrow. So yes, this story will drag on yet another day.
“[I]f #Sharpiegate can be said to serve any non-embarrassing function,” said a columnist at Slate over the weekend, “it’s as a test of another kind, to see which institutions and people have rotted under the president’s hysterical commands and which ones haven’t.” Ross failed the test. Exit question: How come Uccellini or other dissenters haven’t resigned? Is it because they fear they’d be replaced with garbage political cronies who *will* put out the “moon is made of green cheese” statement if commanded to do so?