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Sharpiegate: A Chronology

By Doug Messier
Parabolic Arc
July 16, 2020
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The Aeolus satellite passed close to Hurricane Dorian as the storm stalled over the Bahamas, as shown in this image from NASA’s Aqua satellite taken at 1805 UTC on 1 September 2019. The red line has been superimposed to indicate Aeolus’s path. The Aeolus wind data for that path and beyond, from about 6°N to 42°N, are shown below. (Credit: NASA)

NOAA Hurricane Advisory
Sept. 1, 2019
8 a.m.

Hurricane Dorian forecast at 8 a.m. on Sept. 1, 2019. (Credit: NOAA)

The NOAA advisory issued on Sept. 1 at 8 a.m. EDT showed up to a 10 percent probability of tropical storm force winds stronger than 39 mph lasting an average of 1 minute for a small portion of southeastern Alabama.

Tweet by President Donald Trump
Sunday, Sept. 1, 2019
10:51 a.m. EDT

In addition to Florida – South Carolina, North Carolina, Georgia, and Alabama, will most likely be hit (much) harder than anticipated. Looking like one of the largest hurricanes ever. Already category 5. BE CAREFUL! GOD BLESS EVERYONE!

Tweet by National Weather Service Birmingham Office
Sunday, Sept. 1, 2019
11:11 a.m. EDT

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. #alwx

Washington, DC
Sept. 1-6, 2019

The Birmingham office’s correction infuriates Trump, who believes NWS Birmingham forecasters deliberately contradicted him. The president will send 11 tweets over the next five days insisting he was correct in his warning.

NOAA Headquarters
Sept. 1-6, 2019

NOAA officials respond to the controversy by centralizing responses to media inquiries at headquarters and instructing agency personnel to limit their public communications to official forecasts only.

The decision would result in complaints about the silencing of personnel, political interference in weather forecasting, and alleged violations of NOAA’s Scientific Integrity Policy.

White House Oval Office Briefing
Wednesday, Sept. 4, 2019
Started at 12:57 p.m. EDT

President Donald Trump redraws Hurricane Dorian’s path after the fact.

President Donald Trump displays this modified map of Hurricane Dorian’s projected path during an Oval Office briefing. The map has been altered with a black marker to extend the storm’s impact into southeastern Alabama.

The Washington Post quotes sources as saying Trump drew the semi-circle on the map. The briefing is widely mocked in the press and on social media, giving rise to the moniker Sharpiegate.

Mick Mulvaney Email to Wilbur Ross
Thursday, Sept. 5, 2019
9:21 a.m. EDT

After speaking on the phone, White House Acting Chief of Staff Mick Mulvaney emails Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross, who is traveling in Greece.

“As it currently stands, it appears as if the NWS intentionally contradicted the president. And we need to know why. He wants either a correction or an explanation or both,” Mulvaney wrote.

A series of emails, phone calls between Commerce, NOAA and White House officials follow over the next day.

NOAA Headquarters
Friday, Sept. 6, 2019
8:30 a.m.

High-level NOAA and Commerce Department officials gather to hammer out a public statement about the controversy.

NOAA Headquarters
Friday, Sept. 6, 2019
4:45 p.m. EDT

NOAA releases the following unsigned statement to reporters:

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.

Although Trump feels vindicated, the statement depresses morale at NOAA and NWS while only increasing criticism of how the government has handled the controversy.

NOAA Headquarters
Sept. 7, 2019

Commerce Department Inspector General Peggy E. Gustafson sends a memorandum to NOAA Acting Administrator Neil Jacobs notifying him of an examination of the circumstancing surrounding the unsigned statement and ordering all relevant documents be preserved.

Complaints Filed
Sept. 9-11, 2019

Complaints alleging violations of NOAA’s Scientific Integrity Policy are filed with the Scientific Integrity Officer (SIO) by six individuals, including Rep. Paul Tonko (D-NY).

SIO will consolidate the complaints into three allegations involving the statement and the media guidance NOAA issued to employees from Sept. 1-6, 2019. SIO engages the National Academy of Public Administration (NAPA) to conduct an independent investigation.

House Science Committee Launches Investigation
Sept. 11, 2019

The House Science Committee announces its own investigation into the statement and related issue3s. Chairwoman Eddie Bernice Johnson (D-Texas) and Oversight and Investigations Subcommittee Chairwoman Mikie Sherrill (D-NJ) send a letter to Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross seeking information.

House Science Committee Letter to NOAA Acting Director Neil Jacobs
Sept. 12, 2019

Johnson sends letter to Jacobs seeking information on NOAA’s hurricane Dorian response.

House Science Committee Letter to Commerce Secretary Ross
Oct. 10, 2019

Johnson sends a follow-up latter to Ross saying the House Science Committee has received no materials in response to its letter of Sept. 11.

House Science Committee Letter to Commerce Secretary Ross
Dec. 10, 2019

Johnson sends another follow-up latter to Ross saying the House Science Committee has received no materials in response to its letters of Sept. 11 and Oct. 10.

Jacobs Nominated to Lead NOAA
Dec. 18, 2019

Trump nominates Jacobs, who has been serving as NOAA’s acting administrator, to lead the agency on a permanent basis. The announcement comes a month after Barry Myers withdrew his nomination.

Jacobs’ nomination is sent to the Senate Commerce Committee, whose approval is necessary before the full Senate can vote on it.

National Academy of Public Administration Review
December 2019 — March 2020

A four member panel reviews three alleged violations of NOAA’s Scientific Integrity Policy:

Media guidance issued by NOAA leadership between September 1 and 6, 2019, limited the ability of scientists to communicate with the media and the public about their research findings.

The Birmingham WFO forecasters were not provided the opportunity to review and opine on the September 6 Statement that referenced the September 1 Birmingham Tweet and underlying scientific activity.

The drafting of the September 6 Statement was driven by external political pressure from Department of Commerce (Commerce) senior leaders and inappropriately criticized the September 1 Birmingham Tweet and underlying scientific activity. Further, the September 6 Statement compromised NOAA’s integrity and reputation as an independent scientific agency and violated Section 7.02 of NOAA’s Scientific Integrity Policy.

The panel submits its report for internal review in March.

Senate Commerce Committee Approves Jacobs Nomination
May 20, 2020

The committee approves Jacobs’ nomination to lead NOAA on a permanent basis by voice vote despite concerns about his role in Sharpiegate. The vote sent the nomination on to the full Senate.

Three Democrats record no votes against the nomination. The committee’s ranking member, Sen. Maria Cantwell (D-Wash.), supported the nomination, but said she would reserve final judgment pending the outcome of investigations into his actions on hurricane Dorian.

NAPA Report Released
June 15, 2020

The panel concluded that NOAA Acting Administrator Jacobs and Deputy Chief of Staff/Director of Communications Julie Roberts violated the agency’s Scientific Integrity Policy by releasing the statement and not allowing the Birmingham office to review and comment upon it prior to publication.

The panel found the decision to centralize responses to media inquiries at headquarters and to limit employees’ public comments to official forecasts did not violate the policy.

The report made nine recommendations to NOAA that include training personnel on the Scientific Integrity Policy and improving communications policies.

Memorandum by Stephen M. Volz
NOAA Assistant Administrator for Satellite and Information Services
Scientific Integrity Determining Official (Delegated)
June 15, 2020

Volz concurred with the three findings of the NAPA review panel. He also made 10 recommendations for changes in communications policies and Scientific Integrity Policy training that closely followed the nine recommendations made by the NAPA panel.

Commerce Inspector General Report Submitted for Review
June 26, 2020

Commerce IG Gustafson sends an unredacted report on the unsigned statement to Commerce Secretary Ross for his review. The report is the subject of an ongoing review to determine what privileged information should be redacted from the publicly released version.

Gustafson said the report concluded:

  • Commerce Department led a flawed process that discounted NOAA participation
  • Commerce officials forced NOAA officials to release a statement that did not further the interests of NOAA or the National Weather Service
  • Commerce Department failed to account for the public safety intent of the Birmingham office’s tweet
  • Director of Communications Roberts deleted relevant text messages
  • Commerce Department’s federal records guidance is outdated.

NWS Birmingham forecasters told investigators they did not see Trump’s tweet prior to sending out their own saying Alabama would not be impacted. OIG Investigators found no evidence to the contrary.

Memorandum to Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross
July 1, 2020

Gustafson accuses Commerce officials of obstructing the release of the report by making overly broad and unsupportable claims of privilege. She alleges the rationale is to avoid the release of a report that criticizes the actions of Jacobs, Roberts, Ross and other top department officials.

Gustafson gives Commerce officials until July 9 at 3 pm EDT to propose specific redactions from the report for privilege.

Commerce OIG Report Issued
July 9, 2020

Gustafson publicly releases the 115-page report criticizing the actions of Commerce, NOAA and White House officials.

Sen. Maria Cantwell Opposes Jacobs Nomination
July 9, 2020

In the wake of the OIG report, Cantwell tweets her opposition to the nomination now before the full Senate of Jacobs to lead NOAA on a permanent basis.

NOAA’s work is crucial to protecting American lives and creating and supporting jobs in our ocean economy, which is why leaders of a scientific agency like @NOAA must hold themselves, and their agency, to the highest scientific integrity standard.

Unfortunately, the report released today makes it crystal clear Neil Jacobs is not that leader, and he failed to protect scientists from political influence. Therefore, I oppose Neil Jacobs’ nomination to be the Administrator of NOAA, and I urge my colleagues to join me.