Lisa Friedman and Mark Walker
c.2019 The New York Times Company
WASHINGTON — When officials at a government weather forecasting office assured Alabama residents that a September hurricane would not hit their state, they did not intend to contradict President Donald Trump’s insistence that it would, according to newly disclosed documents.
Instead, they were answering a deluge of questions from Alabama residents whose concerns had been raised by Trump’s statements.
Hundreds of emails and other documents obtained this week through public records requests shed new light on how the weather can turn political in an administration that demands loyalty to Trump even when his positions are at odds with scientific facts. They show that the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, which oversees the National Weather Service, was fully aware that Hurricane Dorian was not headed for Alabama even though they issued a statement days later chastising scientists for saying just that.
“I wanted to let you know that the forecasters in Birmingham who made the clarification post for Alabama was unaware of the POTUS tweet when they made their post,” Susan Buchanan, director of public affairs for the National Weather Service, wrote to NOAA officials the morning after scientists posted their Twitter message on Sept. 1 saying that “Alabama will NOT see any impacts from Dorian.” POTUS is shorthand for president of the United States.
“They had started getting a lot of calls from partners and the public out of the blue, asking about the hurricane and local impacts,” Buchanan wrote. “They didn’t know what prompted these calls, but felt they needed to clarify from an operational perspective. I hope this info helps.”
It apparently did not help much. The White House continued to engage in a whisper campaign against the National Weather Service in Birmingham, Alabama, suggesting that officials there were intent on embarrassing Trump when their posted their message on Twitter.
The president then demanded aides intervene and have the agency “clarify” the scientists’ position, according to people familiar with the events.
What followed was an unusual, unsigned rebuke of the Birmingham office from NOAA on Sept. 6 saying that staff members there had been wrong to categorically dispute the president’s warning.
That outraged some staff members and many citizens, who emailed public relations officials at NOAA calling the rebuke a debasement of the federal government’s scientific integrity, the documents show.
One NOAA meteorologist, Alex Krautmann, emailed the communications staff shortly after the statement was posted. “This statement is deeply upsetting to NOAA employees that have worked the hurricane and not fully accurate based on the timeline in question,” he wrote. “Please raise this in feedback through proper channels.”
Some citizens were sharper. “You have lost all credibility,” one wrote to the Weather Service’s office in Portland, Oregon, which forwarded on the note to top agency officials.
Another asked: “Do you have any idea the damage you have done to NOAA’s reputation and credibility? Do you care?”
The emails and other documents, which were reviewed by the White House before NOAA made them public, do not offer new clues about top administration officials’ actions. A NOAA spokesman, Scott Smullen, said the documents demonstrated “a professional communications office handling media inquiries and normal agency operational email chatter, in addition to employee and public reaction to the issue.”
The Sept. 6 NOAA statement came after Trump insisted groundlessly for five days that Hurricane Dorian would hit Alabama.
The New York Times reported that Mick Mulvaney, the White House acting chief of staff, directed Wilbur Ross, the commerce secretary, who oversees NOAA and the National Weather Service, to have NOAA publicly rebut the forecasters. Ross warned NOAA’s acting administrator that top employees at the agency could be fired if the situation was not addressed, according to multiple people briefed on the discussions.
Ross’ spokesman has denied that the secretary threatened firings, and Trump denied that he gave his chief of staff instructions to disavow the forecast.
“I never did that,” Trump said last month. “That’s a whole hoax by the fake news media. When they talk about the hurricane and when they talk about Florida and they talk about Alabama, that’s just fake news.”
But Neil Jacobs, the acting administrator of NOAA, told congressional investigators that Mulvaney played a key role, according to Rep. Eddie Bernice Johnson, the Texas Democrat who heads the House Science Committee, which is leading one of three separate federal inquiries into the statement.
In a letter this month to Ross, Johnson noted that the interview with Jacobs revealed that top Commerce Department political appointees, not NOAA officials, had drafted the statement and that Mulvaney was “involved in high-level conversations” about it.
According to Johnson’s letter, Jacobs also confirmed a New York Times report that he was first contacted about issuing the statement before dawn on Sept. 6. The Commerce Department officials involved in drafting the letter — David Dewhirst, deputy general counsel; Earl Comstock, director of policy; and Julie Kay Roberts, Jacobs’ deputy chief of staff and communications director — are all political appointees. None holds a scientific degree.
The episode began the night of Sept. 1 as Dorian gathered strength over the Atlantic and headed toward the East Coast. Trump wrote on Twitter that Alabama, among other states, “will most likely be hit (much) harder than anticipated.”
A few minutes after Trump’s tweet, the National Weather Service in Birmingham, caught off guard by worried calls from residents, posted its own message on Twitter declaring that “Alabama will NOT see any impacts from #Dorian. We repeat, no impacts from Hurricane #Dorian will be felt across Alabama.” The forecasters were correct; Alabama was not struck by the hurricane.
Trump was furious and insisted for days that he had been correct. He displayed or posted outdated maps, including one that had been apparently altered with a Sharpie pen to make it look like Alabama had been in the path of the storm.