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White House Pressured NOAA Response to ‘Sharpiegate,’ IG Says

July 10, 2020, 1:33 AM

Political leaders at the White House and Commerce Department pressured the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration to back up President Donald Trump’s false claims that Hurricane Dorian would strike Alabama, Commerce’s internal watchdog said in a report released Thursday evening.

The highly detailed, 115-page report offers a striking look inside several agencies and the White House, painting a picture of significant levels of political interference.

Trump tweeted on Sept. 1, 2019, that Alabama was among the states “most likely” to be hit by “one of the largest hurricanes ever.” Three days later, he displayed a map of Dorian’s projected path, showing what appeared to be a hand-drawn alteration that included Alabama.

Forecasters in NOAA’s Birmingham, Ala., office refuted Trump’s tweet, prompting NOAA to then issue a statement saying the Birmingham office’s tweet “spoke in absolute terms that were inconsistent with probabilities from the best forecast products available at the time.”

After the Birmingham office sent its tweet denying Trump’s claims, then-acting White House Chief of Staff Mick Mulvaney wrote in an email to Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross: “As it currently stands, it appears as if the [National Weather Service] intentionally contradicted the president,” Commerce’s Office of the Inspector General found. “And we need to know why. He wants either a correction or an explanation or both.”

That triggered a flurry of communications among lower-ranking Commerce officials, the OIG found.

Alabama ‘Never in the Track’

“Things went crazy in the middle of the night,” Neil Jacobs, assistant secretary of Commerce for environmental observation and prediction, told the inspector general. The OIG report was dated June 26 but not released until Thursday.

At one point, Michael Walsh, Commerce’s chief of staff and acting general counsel, texted two of his colleagues: “I wonder whether we build a narrative that validates the early Alabama forecast.”

Jacobs also said that Alabama “was never in the track once.”

The Commerce Department could not be immediately reached for comment Thursday.

‘Splitting Hairs’

An earlier NOAA forecast on Sept. 1, 2019, showed that Alabama’s southeastern tip faced only a 5% to 10% chance of being hit by tropical-storm-force winds. When asked whether that map proved that Alabama could be hit, Jacobs said that claim was “splitting hairs over a technicality that no one in the Birmingham office was actually really thinking about when their phone was ringing off the hook,” the OIG said.

Moreover, “these forecast offices tweet stuff similar to this out all of the time, you know,” Jacobs said. “I mean, as a scientist, I cringe a little bit on the technical aspect of it, but no one cares. They’re doing their job. They’re warning the public.”

On July 1, Peggy Gustafson, the head of the OIG, accused Commerce of blocking the report in retaliation for the report’s findings.

In response, Commerce said Gustafson’s memo “contains overly broad assertions of IG independence and authority.”

To contact the reporter on this story: Stephen Lee in Washington at stephenlee@bloombergindustry.com

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Gregory Henderson at ghenderson@bloombergindustry.com

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