WASHINGTON – The head of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration thought his work and that of others would be at risk if the agency did not reprimand analysts who contradicted President Trump’s inaccurate statement last year about the path of Hurricane Dorian, a report by government. .
The inspector general’s report examined the consequences of Trump’s insistence that Hurricane Dorian was heading for Alabama, which meteorologists at the Alabama National Weather Service contradicted. He found a politicized process that investigators described as having “significant flaws” in which the White House’s nightly demands led to urgent intercontinental calls, text messages and emails that culminated in a controversial NOAA statement that criticizes meteorologists.
Inspector General Peggy E. Gustafson largely blamed top advisers to Commerce Secretary Wilbur L. Ross Jr., whose agency oversees NOAA, and charged with coordinating the unsigned September 6 statement, suggesting that the president was right, and that Alabama analysts had acted inappropriately, suggesting otherwise.
She called the statement “contrary to the apolitical mission” of the scientific agency and described it as “the end result of events triggered by an external demand made to Secretary Ross – specifically, a White House request for, in Secretary Ross’s words, ‘ close the gap ‘between President Trump’s statement and the NWS Birmingham tweet. ”
She found no “credible evidence” that top Commerce Department officials explicitly threatened to fire Neil Jacobs, then NOAA’s interim administrator. Jacobs told investigators that he “definitely felt that our jobs were at risk” if he refused to fight his own meteorologists.
“At the very least, lack of communication or lack of clarity surrounded the main questions about whether someone’s work was at risk,” the report concluded.
On September 1, Trump wrote on Twitter that Dorian, who was approaching the east coast of the United States, would hit states, including Alabama, “harder than anticipated. ”Meteorologists at the National Weather Service in Birmingham, Alabama, then contradicted him, assuring the public that they were safe. “Alabama will NOT see impacts from Dorian,” they wrote.
On September 4, Trump appeared in the Oval Office with an altered map of Hurricane Dorian’s path, increasing scrutiny of the president’s insistence that Alabama was in danger and lending the episode the nickname “Sharpiegate”.
The pressure on Jacobs and his team originated with Trump’s acting chief of staff, Mick Mulvaney, who sent an email to Secretary Ross while he was in Greece on agency trips on the morning of September 5, asking him to see the discrepancy. Mr. Mulvaney then followed up with an email.
Mulvaney said Trump “wants a correction, an explanation or both” for the analysts’ statement, according to the report.
On September 6, NOAA issued an unsigned statement, calling Twitter from the Birmingham office to post “inconsistent with the odds of the best forecast products available at the time”.
In a report last month, NOAA concluded that the statement from Dr. Jacobs’ office violated the agency’s code of conduct. This report did not address the actions of Secretary Ross or other Commerce Department officials.
In a series of September 6 text message exchanges included in the report, Michael Walsh, the Commerce Department’s chief of staff, suggested a way to portray the president’s statements about Alabama in a more favorable way.
An earlier forecast, which was out of date at the time of Trump’s posting on Twitter, had shown a small chance that Alabama would experience moderate winds from Dorian. “I wonder if we have built a narrative that validates Alabama’s previous predictions,” wrote Walsh to Jacobs and Julie Roberts, then a senior NOAA employee.
Walsh proposed that Dr. Jacobs issue a statement, in which Dr. Jacobs would say that he had told Trump during an interview the previous Sunday that “there was a strong possibility that the hurricane would hit Florida and hit the panhandle including Alabama,” in the language proposed by Walsh.
Roberts replied to Walsh: “We didn’t tell him that Alabama was at stake on Sunday.”
In a response included in the report, Mr. Walsh called the report’s conclusions “completely without the support of any of the evidence”.
“The Inspector General, instead, selectively quotes the interviews, takes facts out of context, portrays events related to each other, with no evidence establishing a connection, and ignores the basic governance structures of the Department of Commerce,” wrote Walsh.
In a separate response, Sean B. Brebbia, deputy general counsel for the Special Projects Department, said the report’s lack of formal recommendations “shows that there were no major flaws in the Department’s handling of this situation.”
“The Department sees this matter closed,” concluded Brebbia.