Top Commerce Officials Played Key Role in Drafting Hurricane Statement Supporting Trump, NOAA Chief Says
The White House chief of staff was also involved, the administrator told Congress.
Political appointees at the Commerce Department played a key role in drafting a press release aimed at confirming President Trump’s incorrect assertion last month about the path of Hurricane Dorian, according to testimony delivered to lawmakers investigating the incident.
Neil Jacobs, acting administrator of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, told the House Science, Space and Technology Committee the statement issued on his agency’s letterhead—but without anyone’s name assigned to it—was drafted on the computer of David Dewhirst, Commerce’s deputy general counsel. Two other Commerce political appointees, including Secretary Wilbur Ross’ chief of staff, Michael Walsh, participated in the drafting of the statement, Jacobs said, according to a letter the committee sent Ross on Thursday.
In anticipation of Hurricane Dorian approaching the U.S. coast, Trump tweeted on Sept. 1 that several states, including Alabama, would be hit by the storm “(much) harder than anticipated.” That sparked the National Weather Service’s outpost in Birmingham, Alabama, to tweet, “Alabama will NOT see any impacts from #Dorian. We repeat, no impacts from Hurricane #Dorian will be felt across Alabama.” Over the following days, Trump continued to insist he was correct and eventually brought out a NOAA map in the Oval Office that appeared to be altered by a marker to show Alabama was included in the storm’s projected path.
On Sept. 6, NOAA released an unsigned statement that said Alabama was “clearly” in some projected paths of the storm and the Birmingham NWS erred in its tweet.
Democrats on the science committee have sought records and briefings on the origins of that statement, in addition to ongoing investigations from the Commerce inspector general and the NOAA chief scientist. As part of those efforts, Jacobs spoke to the committee earlier this month. In addition to the Commerce officials, Jacobs said acting White House Chief of Staff Mick Mulvaney participated in "high-level conversations" about the NOAA statement. He added that Commerce staff "called in during the drafting process to provide feedback on the draft statement,” and Walsh specifically reached out during the “pre-dawn hours.”
Rep. Eddie Bernice Johnson, D-Texas, the committee's chairwoman, asked for a series of records of phone calls, meetings and other communications, as well as briefings from the Commerce officials involved. Johnson first sent Commerce a letter requesting details of the events leading up to the statement’s release on Sept. 11, but said she has yet to receive a response. She noted many of the documents she requested have already been made available to the Commerce IG, so there is “no reason” to withhold them from Congress.
“The Department of Commerce and National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration work closely each and every day to serve the American people," a Commerce spokesperson said.
The NOAA statement is the latest in a series of reports of political interference in the work of career federal scientists. Other concerns have included prohibiting scientists from attending conferences, instructions to avoid phrases such as “climate change” and alterations to federal environmental impact studies. Employees at agencies like NASA, the Environmental Protection Agency, and NOAA have told Government Executive they are facing unprecedented interference from political leadership, including rollbacks of previous work and interfering in research.
Scientists reported being left out key meetings, feeling fearful in their offices and a general sense of low morale. A Union of Concerned Scientists survey last year found federal employees felt stymied by censorship and interference from political appointees, including 50% who said political considerations were hindering agencies' ability to make science-based decisions.
This story has been updated with a comment from the Commerce Department.