It took 10 days but this fiasco is now a bona fide scandal, with the opposition party launching a formal probe about whether the White House interfered with the National Weather Service’s scientific judgments in order to protect the president’s ego.
The central mystery is why NOAA, which oversees the NWS, issued that strange statement last Friday night gently scolding the Birmingham office of the NWS for disagreeing with Trump’s forecast back on September 1. The president tweeted that morning that Alabama was one of the states that would “most likely be hit (much) harder than anticipated” even though the latest projections placed Dorian creeping up the east coast, away from the Gulf. Only a small corner of Alabama was at risk, and only with a 10 percent probability of tropical-storm-force winds. So the Birmingham office put out a tweet after Trump’s to try to calm people, stressing that “Alabama will NOT see any impacts from #Dorian.”
After many days of Trump doubling down and the media tripling down and Trump quadrupling down on whether his initial tweet was right or wrong, the Times reported on Monday that none other than Wilbur Ross, the Secretary of Commerce, had phoned NOAA last Friday and demanded that the agency put out a statement siding with Trump, reportedly even threatening to fire people if they didn’t. That’s what got Democrats’ attention: Exactly how far up the federal bureaucracy did this dispute, which was about nothing more than whether the president made a minor mistake in using outdated information in a tweet, go? Did the pressure on NOAA originate with Ross or did it go even higher?
Of course it went higher, claims WaPo in a new story this afternoon. This clusterfark is poles apart in significance from the aborted invite to the Taliban to come to Camp David but it’s similar in one important respect: There’s only one person in the federal government who conceivably could have thought it was a good idea. Wilbur Ross doesn’t care if the NWS corrected Trump on a mistake he made. Mick Mulvaney doesn’t care either. If you could ask them off the record, doubtless even Melania and the Trump children wouldn’t care.
Only one person cares.
President Trump told his staff that the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration needed to correct a tweet that seemed to contradict his statement that Hurricane Dorian posed a significant threat to Alabama as of Sept. 1, in contrast to what the agency’s forecasters were predicting at the time. This led chief of staff Mick Mulvaney to call Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross to tell him to fix the issue, senior administration officials said.
Trump had complained for several days about the issue, according to senior officials who spoke on the condition of anonymity due to the sensitive nature of the matter…
Trump told reporters he did not direct NOAA to issue such a statement on Wednesday afternoon. “No, I never did that,” Trump said. “I never did that. It’s a hoax by the media. That’s just fake news, right from the beginning, it was a fake story.”
Trump didn’t directly deputize Ross, said the NYT in its own story about this. Mick Mulvaney was put on the case and then he got on the phone with Ross, albeit without demanding that Ross threaten anyone over it:
Mick Mulvaney, the acting White House chief of staff, told Wilbur Ross, the commerce secretary, to have the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration publicly disavow the forecasters’ position that Alabama was not at risk. NOAA, which is part of the Commerce Department, issued an unsigned statement last Friday in response, saying that the Birmingham, Ala., office was wrong to dispute the president’s warning.
In pressing NOAA’s acting administrator to take action, Mr. Ross warned that top employees at the agency could be fired if the situation was not addressed, The New York Times previously reported. Mr. Ross’s spokesman has denied that he threatened to fire anyone, and a senior administration official on Wednesday said Mr. Mulvaney did not tell the commerce secretary to make such a threat.
Congrats to Mulvaney on finally achieving the highest aspiration of the tea party, bossing around weathermen for correcting the president on a minor factual mistake. If small-government fans can’t hold the deficit below a trillion dollars a year in an age of rapid economic growth, they can at least muscle some nerds into eating sh*t on a quibble over a hurricane projection.
You can read the full letter sent to Ross today by Democrats on the House Science Committee right here. Key bit:
Their first question for him is whether anyone in the Executive Office of the President communicated with him about leaning on NOAA on Trump’s behalf. What will he say?
I think there’s a nonzero chance at this point that Ross ends up quitting. Not because this is a mega-scandal — most people who pay attention to it will be dumbstruck by how small the stakes are — but because he’s 81, reportedly falls asleep in meetings, and Trump might relish the opportunity to install a hardcore protectionist at Commerce in Ross’s place who can help him sell the trade war to the public. Obviously Trump’s not going to fire him for carrying out the president’s wishes in this instance but the White House might use the controversy to gently suggest to Ross that he should consider retirement. We’ll see.