Report confirms Commerce officials responded to orders from the White House.
The Commerce Department inspector general issued a delayed and harshly critical report laying out how political pressure originating from the White House resulted in the issuance of a poorly crafted and unsigned National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) statement on Sept. 6, 2019.
That statement backed President Trump’s erroneous claims that Hurricane Dorian was likely to severely impact Alabama and criticized the agency’s own meteorologists.
That statement, the inspector general found, damaged NOAA’s reputation for issuing apolitical guidance and eroded public trust in an agency tasked with protecting life and property. The report, however, contains no recommendations for punishing officials or major changes to department policies and procedures.
The inspector general, Peggy Gustafson, an appointee of President Barack Obama, found that the scandal that became known as “Sharpiegate” could have broader repercussions. The United States is bracing for what is expected to be an unusually active hurricane season, which comes amid a worsening coronavirus pandemic affecting multiple hurricane-prone states, including Florida and Texas. Just after the report was released, Tropical Storm Fay formed off the Mid-Atlantic coast, the earliest sixth named storm on record.
“The broader, longer-term consequence is that NOAA’s rebuke of the NWS Birmingham office could have a chilling effect on NWS forecasters’ future public safety messages, as well as undercut public trust in NWS forecasts,” the report stated.
The imbroglio began Sept. 1, when Trump tweeted that Alabama was at risk from Hurricane Dorian, which was devastating the Bahamas at the time. Trump falsely asserted that the state would “most likely be hit (much) harder than anticipated” by the powerful hurricane.
When Trump sent the tweet, the official Hurricane Center forecast showed the storm skirting the East Coast far away from Alabama. Only one National Hurricane Center forecast product was showing any potential impact in Alabama — a 5 to 20 percent chance of tropical-storm-force winds in a small portion of the state.
In response to calls from panicked residents who saw Trump’s tweet, NOAA’s National Weather Service forecast office in Birmingham, Ala., indicated in a tweet of its own that Alabama was not at serious risk from the Category 5 storm. To calm fears, not knowing Trump had stoked the concern, it tweeted: “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.”
The dissonance between the two tweets, as well as Trump’s continued insistence that he was correct about the Alabama forecast, culminated with the president displaying an NOAA hurricane forecast map altered with a Sharpie during a storm briefing in the Oval Office, which earned the scandal the name “Sharpiegate.”
The episode foreshadowed subsequent Trump administration science controversies, including the White House’s repeated dismissals of public health advice for responding to the coronavirus pandemic.