November 19, 2019, 10:58

NOAA inspector general opens probe into statement backing Trump, firing threats

NOAA inspector general opens probe into statement backing Trump, firing threats

The circumstances surrounding an unsigned NOAA statement on Friday backing President Donald Trump on Hurricane Dorian, including reported threats of firings, are now “matters under review” by the Commerce Department’s inspector general, a spokesman said Tuesday, but he declined to comment further.

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Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross threatened to fire top political appointees at NOAA if they didn’t get in lock step with the president’s assertion that Alabama would be affected by Hurricane Dorian, The New York Times reported Monday.

Department officials have described the story as “false.”

Yuri Gripas/Reuters, FILE

Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross speaks at the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) annual meeting at National Harbor near Washington, March 1, 2019.

A separate Commerce Department spokesman said “Secretary Ross did not threaten to fire any NOAA staff over forecasting and public statements about Hurricane Dorian.”

NOAA Acting Administrator Neil Jacobs, whom Ross reportedly called to make the threat, did not criticize him during remarks at a conference in Huntsville, Alabama, on Tuesday. He also appeared to support the president’s contention that Alabama was in the storm’s potential path at one point although Trump’s comments came after the threat had effectively disappeared.

“Having a category 5 sitting 150 miles off the coast is incredibly intimidating situation for forecasters to deal with,” Jacobs said. “At one point, Alabama was in the mix, as was the rest of the southeast.”

In an unsigned statement issued late last week, NOAA said the NWS Birmingham office, which originally contradicted the president’s claim on Sunday, before Dorian came near the Florida coast, that Alabama would be affected, was wrong to speak “in absolute terms” when it tweeted: “Alabama will NOT see any impacts from #Dorian.”

The NOAA statement on Friday ignited a firestorm of criticism from career staffers at the National Weather Service, who in recent days have been speaking out in support of their colleagues at the NWS Birmingham office.

Former NOAA general counsel in the Clinton Administration Monica Medina tweeted, “As a former @NOAA leader I can say two things with certainty. No NOAA Administrator I worked for would have done this. And I would have quit if I had been directed to agree to let this BS go out.”

The White House has yet to respond to questions first asked Friday about whether Trump or anyone at the White House was involved in how the initial statement from NOAA came about.

Evan Vucci/AP

President Donald Trump talks with reporters after receiving a briefing on Hurricane Dorian in the Oval Office of the White House, Sept. 4, 2019, in Washington.

(MORE: NOAA’s chief scientist wants probe into agency backing of Trump on Dorian)

NOAA’s acting chief scientist, Craig McClean, announced Monday that he wants to launch an investigation into potential policy violations involving that same statement.

Morale at the National Weather Service has been describe as extremely low by representatives of the employees’ union, the National Weather Service Employees Organization.

“Never before has anyone tried to politicize weather forecasting,” said Richard Hirn, a union attorney. “As a result, the morale of the NWS has been totally shattered. These employees work under extremely arduous circumstances.”

“They did what any office would do to protect the public,” said Louis Uccellini, director of the National Weather Service on Monday. “They did that with one thing in mind: public safety.”

Members of Congress were being briefed Tuesday on the threat to fire NOAA staff, according to people familiar with the ongoing conversations.

“I am extremely disturbed by the directive that NOAA leadership sent on September 6, which threatens the integrity and public trust of weather forecasts at the peak of Hurricane season,” said Rep. Eddie Bernice Johnson, D-Texas, chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Committee. “The Committee will pursue this issue and we expect full cooperation from the Department of Commerce in our efforts.”


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