by Douglas Messier
A government review of the Sharpiegate scandal has concluded that Commerce Department officials erred last year when they forced NOAA to issue a statement last year criticizing the National Weather Service (NWS) and backing President Donald Trump’s erroneous forecast regarding Hurricane Dorian impact’s on Alabama.
NOAA officials were in fear of being fired when they issued the statement on Sept. 6, 2019 under pressure from the White House and their bosses in the Commerce Department, the report said.
Five days earlier, the NWS office in Birmingham, Ala., had infuriated Trump by contradicting his earlier tweet that Alabama “will most likely be hit (much) harder than anticipated” by the Category 5 hurricane.
The report, issued last week by the Commerce Department’s Office of Inspector General (OIG), concluded the following:
I. The Department led a flawed process that discounted NOAA participation.
II. The Department required NOAA to issue a Statement that did not further NOAA’s or NWS’s interests.
III. The Department failed to account for the public safety intent of the NWS Birmingham tweet and the distinction between physical science and social science messaging.
IV. One NOAA employee deleted relevant text messages, and the Department’s federal records guidance is outdated.
“The Department’s reaction 5 days later to the NWS Birmingham tweet was prompted by a White House request—rather than to correct a 5-day old forecast, or to alleviate any confusion about that forecast—and revealed that the Department failed to understand the public safety intent underlying the Birmingham NWS tweet,” the report said.
The report criticized the actions of Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross, NOAA Acting Director Neil Jacobs, NOAA Director of Communications Julie Roberts, Trump’s then Acting Chief of Staff Mick Mulvaney, and others for politicizing the apolitical function of weather forecasting and damaging the reputations of NOAA and NWS.
“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 review concluded.
Jacobs’ nomination to lead NOAA on a permanent basis now faces increased opposition in the Senate. The report also expressed doubt about Roberts’ explanation for why she deleted relevant text messages.
An Erroneous Tweet
NOAA issued the following unsigned statement at 4:45 p.m. EDT on Friday, Sept. 6.
From Wednesday, August 28, through Monday, September 2, 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. This is clearly demonstrated in Hurricane Advisories #15 through #41, which can be viewed at the following link.
The Birmingham National Weather Service’s Sunday morning tweet spoke in absolute terms that were inconsistent with probabilities from the best forecast products available at the time.
Five days earlier, the Category 5 hurricane was approaching the Bahamas with sustained winds of 185 mph (298 km/h) on its way to the U.S. mainland. Trump sent the following tweet on Sunday, Sept. 1 at 10:51 a.m. EDT.
In addition to Florida – South Carolina, North Carolina, Georgia, and Alabama, will most likely be hit (much) harder than anticipated. Looking like one of the largest hurricanes ever. Already category 5. BE CAREFUL! GOD BLESS EVERYONE!
Twenty minutes at 11:11 a.m. EDT, the NWS office in Birmingham, Ala., contradicted part of the president’s warning.
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. #alwx
A furious Trump would insist he was right about the forecast and that NWS Birmingham had deliberately contradicted him. Over the next five days, the president tweeted 11 times saying he was correct about the impact on Alabama.
In response to the president’s anger, NOAA officials ordered all personnel to limit public comments to official forecasts and to refer all media questions to headquarters. This decision resulted in complaints about the agency silencing scientists in contradiction of agency policy.
Checking Politics at the Door
The three-person team at NWS Birmingham told OIG investigators they had been getting calls from worried residents during their morning shift. Two phone calls came in after the president’s tweet.
The forecasters said they were not following Trump’s Twitter account and were unaware of the president’s tweet when they issued the statement. Investigators found no evidence to the contrary.
“[W]eather . . . is the most apolitical thing you could possibly do. Because that tornado doesn’t care who you’re voting for. It will rip up your house . . . . [W]e don’t bring politics in here. . . . We work as a team to serve people,” a NWS Birmingham forecaster told OIG.
An Older Forecast
Trump’s tweet was based on an older forecast that had Dorian crossing Florida and exiting into the Gulf of Mexico. If the hurricane had followed that path, there was a real possibility of Alabama experiencing serious impacts.
By Sunday morning, however, the latest forecast had Dorian veering away from Florida and heading up the East Coast. The NOAA forecast issued at 8 am EDT showed a 5 to 10 percent probability of a small part of of southeast Alabama experiencing winds above 39 mph.
Jacobs blamed the National Security Council (NSC) for not keeping Trump updated with the latest weather forecast. NOAA brief the NSC, which in turn briefed Trump.
“NSC needs to stop trying to translate our plots for us. Nobody here would have said that AL was going to have impacts with a 15% chance of seeing 39 mph winds. That’s just a windy day even if it was 100% chance,” Jacobs would complain to Commerce Chief of Staff Michael Walsh, Jr.
While NW Birmingham’s tweet wasn’t 100 percent correct, it was much closer to the truth than Trump’s dire warning and posed no concern to forecasters at that time.
“Finally, to put the 5–10 percent probability of tropical-storm-force winds in perspective: one forecaster said that NWS Birmingham typically looks at about 30–40 percent probability when issuing a watch for a weather event and about 50–60 percent probability when issuing a warning for a weather event,” the IG report said.
And Now, Sharpiegate
On Wednesday, Sept. 4, Trump held a briefing in the Oval Office during which a map showing Dorian’s projected path up the East Coast. The map included a semi-circle drawn in black ink that showed the storm impacting Alabama that was not originally on the document.
The Washington Post, citing confidential sources, reported Trump had drawn the semi-circle to prove he was right. The incident was quickly dubbed SharpieGate after the Sharpie line of ink pens.
With widespread ridicule of the incident only making the controversy worse, the White House began to put pressure on the Commerce Department. On Thursday, Sept. 5, then Acting Chief of Staff Mick Mulvaney emailed Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross.
Wilbur: here is the issue: the NWS put this release out —— ON SUNDAY —— saying Alabama was not at risk.
I was with the President on Saturday [sic] when he put out the tweet about Alabama. And all The maps at that point included Alabama. So the question is: why would the NWS put this out on Sunday?
If they had, as you suggested, received inquiries from people In Alabama, it seems that the more appropriate response —— on Sunday —— would have been to say either 1) Alabama is at risk, though slight or 2) Alabama is no longer at risk (if more recent maps that they had that I haven’t seen, showed that change).
As it currently stands, it appears as if the NWS intentionally contradicted the president. And we need to know why.
He wants either a correction or an explanation or both.
Hope this makes sense.
That unsigned, two paragraph “correction” came the next day following a tense, day-long set of consultations involving Commerce, NOAA and White House officials. Ross became involved in the discussions while traveling from Greece to Turkey.
NOAA and Commerce officials told OIG investigators different stories about the inclusion of the paragraph about NWS Birmingham.
According to the NOAA version, the Department required the inclusion of the line criticizing the NWS Birmingham tweet. Dr. Jacobs testified that at least three or four people (himself, Ms. Roberts, and one or two NOAA Communications employees) objected to the inclusion of the line calling out NWS Birmingham for its tweet. But, during a call with the travel team, “we were basically overruled and [someone] said Birmingham’s got to stay in there.”
In contrast, according to the Department version, no one objected to the line referencing the NWS Birmingham tweet. Specifically, Mr. Dewhirst, Mr. Walsh, the Department’s then-Press Secretary, the then-Deputy General Counsel for Special Projects, and Secretary Ross did not recall any objection to the line referencing the NWS Birmingham tweet. Rather, from the Department’s perspective, the very purpose of the statement was to correct or to clarify the NWS Birmingham tweet.
Jacobs and Roberts have defended the statement as accurate because NWS Birmingham had spoken in absolute terms. They have rejected claims that it violated any NOAA policies.
Damaging NOAA & NWS
The OIG investigation concluded the process was flawed and the statement damaged the reputation of NOAA and NWS.
The Department’s reaction 5 days later to the NWS Birmingham tweet was prompted by a White House request—rather than to correct a 5-day old forecast, or to alleviate any confusion about that forecast—and revealed that the Department failed to understand the public safety intent underlying the Birmingham NWS tweet.
In addition, the Department’s mismanagement of the response to the White House, which took place on a day when Secretary Ross and his Chief of Staff traveled from Greece to Turkey, resulted in both a tense process and final product that caused some NOAA employees to assume that jobs were on the line.
The rushed process also failed to fully include NOAA stakeholders and thereby undermined the Department’s goal of issuing a public statement that would be supported by NOAA employees.
Further, the very issuance of the Statement had public safety implications. An immediate, but briefly lived, consequence was that leaders at some NWS offices lost or had diminished connections with their emergency management contacts after having to turn off their mobile phones due to the number of calls about the Statement.
However, 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.
Deleted Text Messages
Investigators found NOAA Communications Director Roberts deleted the relevant text message chains from September 6, 2019 prior to the 8:30 a.m. meeting where officials met to write a statement.
Although she replied in both chains, Ms. Roberts said that she did not read the messages and “immediately” deleted them from her phone when she woke up the morning of September 6 at roughly 7:00 a.m. EDT. She explained that she could not follow the messages because the people traveling were using travel mobile phones with numbers she did not recognize—and recalled: “I couldn’t tell who was talking, and I was like, I’m never going to figure this [thread] out, it’s useless, so I just deleted it. Never even looked at it.”
We found Ms. Roberts’s explanation unconvincing. First, Ms. Roberts participated in two of the text message threads, sending messages at about 3:14 a.m. EDT and 3:43 a.m. EDT. Second, the thread of messages involving five people included messages around 11:05 a.m. EDT and 2:56 p.m. EDT, so Ms. Roberts would have received some of these messages well after she woke up on the morning of September 6 at approximately 7:00 a.m. EDT. Additionally, Ms. Roberts also said that she deleted the texts from her work mobile phone on a regular basis and did not file text messages because “99 percent of the time you’re never going to need a text message.”
Investigators found that the Commerce Department’s “policy allows, and sometimes requires, travel mobile phones to be wiped after foreign travel.”
Although the statement pleased Trump, the controversy only worsened in the days that followed as NOAA and NWS employees, outside weather professionals, members of Congress and the public accused the Trump Administration of politicizing weather forecasting and unfairly criticizing NWS Birmingham.
On Sept. 7, the Commerce Department OIG informed Jacobs that the office was opening a review and ordered him to preserve all relevant records and communications.
The House Science Committee announces its own investigation into the statement and NOAA’s handling of hurricane Dorian four days later.
Six individuals, including Rep. Paul Tonko (D-NY), filed complaints alleging violations of NOAA’s Scientific Integrity Policy with the Scientific Integrity Officer (SIO) during the week following the statement.
SIO consolidated the complaints into three allegations involving the statement and the media guidance NOAA issued to employees from Sept. 1-6, 2019. SIO engaged the National Academy of Public Administration (NAPA) to conduct an independent investigation.
The NAPA investigation, released last month, found that Jacobs and Roberts violated the agency’s Scientific Integrity Policy by releasing the statement and not letting NWS Birmingham officials review it prior to release.
NAPA’s investigation also concluded that NOAA’s decision to order personnel to stick to official forecasts and refer media inquiries to headquarters did not violate the policy.
The NAPA review panel recommended that NOAA officials undergo training in the Scientific Integrity Policy. The panels also recommended changes to the agency’s communications policy.
Sharpiegate might have cost Jacobs his chance to run NOAA on a permanent basis. His nomination is now before the full Senate after being approved by the Commerce Committee.
On Thursday, Sen. Maria Cantwell (D-Wash.) announced her opposition to Jacobs confirmation based on the contents of OIG report and invited other Senators to join her.
Republicans hold a 53-47 majority in the Senate. Four Senators would have to join a united group of 45 Democrats and 2 Independents to defeat Jacobs’ nomination.