Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross

Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross Eraldo Peres / AP

Lawmakers Call On Commerce Chief to Resign Over Alleged Threats to Fire Top NOAA Officials

Ross is said to have threatened to fire officials if they would not fix a statement contradicting the president’s claims Hurricane Dorian was likely to hit Alabama.

Several House Democrats and one of the nation’s largest grassroots environmental organizations are calling on Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross to resign after he allegedly threatened to fire top officials if they did not correct a contradiction of President Trump’s claim that Hurricane Dorian would likely hit Alabama.

Rep. Don Beyer, D-Va., said on Monday that Ross’s “attacks on the scientists and federal employees, whom he threatened to fire for doing their jobs by accurately reporting the weather, are an embarrassing new low” and that Ross “should be dismissed immediately.”

“There is no excuse for Secretary Ross to put Donald Trump’s ego ahead of public safety and scientific integrity,” Rep. Bill Foster, D-Ill., tweeted on Tuesday. “If this is true, Secretary Ross must resign.” 

Reps. Paul Tonko, D-N.Y.; Jim Himes, D-Conn.; and Gerry Connolly, D-Va., as well as the Sierra Club, are also calling on Ross to resign following a report in The New York Times on Monday that Ross threatened to fire top officials at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, a division of the Commerce Department. The threat allegedly came after the Birmingham office of the National Weather Service, part of NOAA, tweeted on Sept. 1 that Alabama would not see any impacts from Dorian, contradicting an assertion from Trump that it would be “hit (much) harder than anticipated.”  The president doubled down on his claim and displayed a NOAA map on Sept. 4 that appeared to be altered with a black marker to include Alabama in the storm’s path. 

Ross said he would fire political staff at NOAA if they failed to “fix the agency’s perceived contradiction of the president,” The New York Times reported.  

Sierra Club Executive Director Michael Brune said in a statement, “To maintain the dignity of the federal government and preserve the trust the American people have in essential nonpartisan scientific agencies like NOAA, Secretary Ross must immediately resign.” The organization is also circulating an online petition to call on Ross to resign.

House Science, Space and Technology Committee Chairwoman Rep. Eddie Bernice Johnson, D-Texas, didn’t call for a resignation, but said she is “extremely disturbed” by the political interferences at the Commerce Department. She added, “the committee will pursue this issue and we expect full cooperation from the department.” Johnson also reminded federal employees of the whistleblower protections they have by law. 

The Commerce Department disputed the reporting about the potential firings. “The New York Times story is false,” a department spokesperson said. “Secretary Ross did not threaten to fire any NOAA staff over forecasting and public statements about Hurricane Dorian.” 

Ross’s alleged “threat led to an unusual, unsigned statement later that Friday by the agency, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, disavowing the National Weather Service’s position that Alabama was not at risk,” The New York Times reported. 

At the National Weather Association annual meeting on Tuesday, NOAA acting Administrator Neil Jacobs said the purpose of the unsigned statement “was to clarify potential impacts of Dorian.” He said the agency understands “the good intent of the Birmingham weather office” and “no one’s job is under threat.” 

The statement, which the agency’s inspector general is now reviewing, caused widespread anger within the agency, according to The New York Times. NOAA’s acting Chief Scientist Craig McLean wrote in an email, first reported by The Washington Post, that he is looking into possible violations of NOAA’s scientific integrity policy and believes “this intervention to contradict the forecaster was not based on science,” but rather “political" motivations

National Weather Service Director Louis Uccellini backed up the Birmingham office on Monday while speaking at the National Weather Association meeting. “They did that with one thing in mind: public safety,” Uccellini said. Alabama was not actually affected by Hurricane Dorian.