Report: Wilbur Ross Threatened Firings at NOAA Over Sharpiegate

Wilbur Ross

by Douglas Messier
Managing Editor

The New York Times reports that Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross threatened to fire top officials at NOAA unless they backed President Donald Trump’s claim that he was right when he tweeted about Hurricane Dorian threatening Alabama with worse damage than anticipated.

Meanwhile, NOAA’s top scientist is investigating whether the statement backing Trump’s claim violates the agency’s scientific integrity rules.

Trump tweeted on Sept. 1 that Alabama would be one of the states hit by the Category 5 storm. The warning was quickly contradicted by the National Weather Service’s office in Birmingham, Ala.

Trump spent much of last week insisting he was right. While giving an update on the storm, Trump displayed a map on which someone had drawn a semi-circle in black ink on an official NOAA map that expanded Dorian’s expected path into Alabama.

Media reports have quoted White House aides as saying Trump drew the semi-circle himself. Critics have dubbed the incident Sharpiegate.

The Times reports:

Mr. Ross, the Commerce Secretary, intervened two days later, 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.

However, a senior administration official who asked not to be identified when discussing internal deliberations said that the Birmingham office had been wrong and that NOAA had simply done the responsible thing and corrected the record.

That official suggested the Twitter post by the Birmingham forecasters had been motivated by a desire to embarrass the president more than concern for the safety of people in Alabama. The official provided no evidence to support that conclusion.

NOAA issued an unsigned statement on Friday backing Trump’s claim that Alabama could be affected by the hurricane. Forecasting experts have called the statement highly unusual.

Past and present NOAA employees have expressed outrage about the statement, saying it is incorrect and worrying that the vital work of weather forecasting was being compromised by politics. They also worry that people will not take future forecasts seriously, endangering lives in the process.

The Miami Herald reports that NOAA Acting Chief Scientist Craig N. McLean is examining whether the agency violated scientific integrity rules in issuing the unsigned statement. Meanwhile, the director of the National Weather Service has publicly backed the Birmingham office.

Two top NOAA civil servants not so quietly revolted against an unsigned agency press release issued late Friday rebuking the Birmingham weather office for saying Alabama was safe. The agency’s top scientist called Friday’s release “political” and the head of the National Weather Service said the Alabama office “did what any office would do to protect the public.”

“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,” acting chief scientist and assistant administrator for ocean and atmospheric research Craig McLean wrote to staffers Sunday night….

Meanwhile, another career civil servant, National Weather Service Director Louis Uccellini said forecasters in Birmingham did the right thing Sept. 1 when they tried to combat public panic and rumors that Dorian posed a threat to Alabama.

“They did that with one thing in mind: public safety,” said Uccellini, who prompted a standing ovation at a meeting of the National Weather Association by asking members of the Birmingham weather staff to stand.