WASHINGTON — The White House was directly involved in pressing a federal scientific agency to repudiate the weather forecasters who contradicted President Donald Trump’s claim that Hurricane Dorian would probably strike Alabama, according to several people familiar with the events.
Mick Mulvaney, the acting White House chief of staff, told Wilbur Ross, the commerce secretary, to have the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration publicly disavow the forecasters’ position that Alabama was not at risk. NOAA, which is part of the Commerce Department, issued an unsigned statement Friday in response, saying that the Birmingham, Alabama, office was wrong to dispute the president’s warning.
In pressing NOAA’s acting administrator to take action, Ross warned that top employees at the agency could be fired if the situation was not addressed, The New York Times previously reported. Ross’ spokesman has denied that he threatened to fire anyone, and a senior administration official Wednesday said Mulvaney did not tell the commerce secretary to make such a threat.
The release of the NOAA statement provoked complaints that the Trump administration was improperly intervening in the professional weather forecasting system to justify the president’s mistaken assertion. The Commerce Department’s inspector general is investigating how that statement came to be issued, saying it could call into question scientific independence.
The House Committee on Science, Space and Technology, which is controlled by Democrats, announced Wednesday that it too has opened an investigation into Ross’ actions.
The White House had no immediate comment Wednesday, but the senior administration official said Mulvaney was interested in having the record corrected because, in his view, the Birmingham forecasters had gone too far and the president was right to suggest there had been forecasts showing possible impact on Alabama.
Trump was furious at being contradicted by the forecasters in Alabama. On Sept. 1, the president wrote on Twitter that Alabama “will most likely be hit (much) harder than anticipated.” A few minutes later, the National Weather Service in Birmingham posted on Twitter that “Alabama will NOT see any impacts from Dorian. We repeat, no impacts from Hurricane Dorian will be felt across Alabama.”
For nearly a week, Trump kept insisting he was right, displaying outdated maps, including one that had been apparently altered with a Sharpie marker to make it look like Alabama might be in the path of the storm. He had his homeland security adviser release a statement backing him up.
Ross called Neil Jacobs, the acting administrator of NOAA, from Greece where the secretary was traveling for meetings, and instructed Jacobs to fix the agency’s perceived contradiction of the president, according to three people informed about the discussions.
Jacobs objected to the demand and was told that the political appointees 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.
The political staff at an agency typically includes a handful of top officials, such as Jacobs, and their aides. They are appointed to their jobs by the administration currently in power, as opposed to career government employees, who remain in their jobs as administrations come and go.
The statement NOAA ultimately issued later Friday calling the Birmingham office’s statement “inconsistent with probabilities from the best forecast products available at the time.”
Jacobs has since sought to reassure his work force and the broader scientific community concerned about political interference.
“This administration is committed to the important mission of weather forecasting,” Jacobs told a weather conference in Huntsville, Alabama, on Tuesday. “There is no pressure to change the way you communicate or forecast risk in the future.”
In the speech, Jacobs praised Trump, calling him “genuinely interested in improving weather forecasts,” and echoed the president’s position that Dorian initially threatened Alabama.
“At one point, Alabama was in the mix, as was the rest of the Southeast,” he said.
Jacobs also said he still had faith in the Birmingham office.
“The purpose of the NOAA statement was to clarify the technical aspects of the potential impacts of Dorian,” he said. “What it did not say, however, is that we understand and fully support the good intent of the Birmingham weather forecast office, which was to calm fears in support of public safety.”