Watchdog Says Agency Played Politics in Sharpiegate Fallout

After receiving a briefing on Hurricane Dorian, President Donald Trump displayed this chart to reporters in the Oval Office of the White House on Sept. 4, 2019. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci. File)

WASHINGTON (CN) — Americans’ safety was not the focus, a federal watchdog reported, when agency officials chastised an office in Alabama that gave accurate information about Hurricane Dorian last year, contradicting President Trump’s erroneous insistence about the storm’s expected impact.

Commerce Department Inspector General Peggy Gustafson released her findings Thursday, summarizing what has been a 10-month investigation of Sharpiegate — so named after the now-iconic image of President Donald Trump using a doctored weather-forecasting model to warn that Alabama was in the path of impact as the United States braced for impact from Hurricane Dorian.

As the storm made U.S. landfall on Sept. 6 at Cape Hatteras, North Carolina, some 600 miles away from Alabama, records show that White House officials were furious with the Birmingham office of the National Weather Service for telling their state not to worry.

“Alabama will NOT see any impacts from #Dorian,” the office had tweeted at 11:11 a.m. EDT on Sept. 1.

Responding to calls from worried citizens and relying on the most up-to-date information, the office says it had not known at the time that its message contradicted one President Donald Trump tweeted 20 minutes earlier that said Alabama would “most likely be hit (much) harder than anticipated” by the hurricane.

Trump held his press conference featuring the Sharpie-modified map on Sept. 4, and Mick Mulvaney, then the White House’s acting chief of staff, wrote to Secretary of Commerce Wilbur Ross the next day.

“As it currently stands, it appears as if the NWS intentionally contradicted the President,” Mulvaney wrote. “And we need to know why. He wants either a correction or an explanation or both.”

Gustafson’s 115-page report calls this drama at odds with the goals of weather forecasting, which she calls an “apolitical public service.”

“Instead of focusing on NOAA’s successful hurricane forecast, the department unnecessarily rebuked NWS forecasters for issuing a public safety message about Hurricane Dorian in response to public inquiries — that is, for doing their jobs,” Gustafson wrote.

Friday’s audit notes that the situation evolved rapidly after Mulvaney wrote to Ross. “Things went crazy in the middle of the night,” recalled Dr. Neil Jacobs, who heads the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, as quoted in the report.

The upheaval culminated on Sept. 6 with the NOAA issuing an unsigned statement that insisted the threat to Alabama had been real.

“The information provided by NOAA and the National Hurricane Center to President Trump and the wider public demonstrated that tropical-storm-force winds from Hurricane Dorian could impact Alabama,” it asserted.

Birmingham’s National Weather Service was criticized in the statement meanwhile for using “absolute terms that were inconsistent with probabilities from the best forecast products available at the time.”

Gustafson slammed the move: “By requiring NOAA to issue an unattributed statement related to a then-5-day-old tweet, while an active hurricane continued to exist off the east coast of the United States, the Department displayed poor judgment in exercising its authority over NOAA,” she wrote.

Agency heads deny it now, but Gustafson also found that there was a sense, if not an outright threat, at the agency “that jobs were on the line.”

Julie Roberts, a NOAA official who says the Commerce Department’s Michael Walsh said those exact words to her, earned criticism in the report meanwhile for deleting the overnight text messages she had received ahead of the agency issuing its Sept. 6 statement.

The report calls Roberts’ explanations for why she deleted her messages “unconvincing,” while also blaming the blizzard of overnight messages with breaking communications between NWS leaders and their emergency management contacts “after having to turn off their mobile phones due to the number of calls about the statement.”

More broadly, the report warned, is that the statement “could have a chilling effect on NWS forecasters’ future public safety messages, as well as undercut public trust in NWS forecasts.”

The White House did not immediately respond to request for comment. 

Walsh has denied threatening jobs and is shown in a June 29 letter attached to the report as calling Gustafson’s report “unsupported.”

“The inspector general instead selectively quotes from interviews, takes facts out of context, portrays events as related to one another without any evidence establishing a connection, and ignores basic governance structures of the Department of Commerce,” he wrote.

Walsh defended the accuracy of the NOAA’s Sept. 6 statement and denied that the process was “somehow flawed because of my leadership.” 

“Senior department leaders believed that the statement resulted from a consensus-based process that included all stakeholders, including those from the NOAA and NWS,” he wrote.

In response to the inspector general’s report, Washington Senator Maria Cantwell has said she does not support Jacobs’ nomination to be the full-time chief of NOAA, which released its own report on the incident in June.

“NOAA’s work is crucial to protecting American lives and creating and supporting jobs in our ocean economy, which is why leaders of a scientific agency like @NOAA must hold themselves, and their agency, to the highest scientific integrity standard,” Cantwell tweeted Thursday. “Unfortunately, the report released today makes it crystal clear Neil Jacobs is not that leader, and he failed to protect scientists from political influence. Therefore, I oppose Neil Jacobs’ nomination to be the Administrator of NOAA, and I urge my colleagues to join me.”

Gustafson’s report quotes Jacobs and Roberts as saying they were “baffled” by Trump’s insistence on Sept. 1 about Alabama being in the cone of danger.

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