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Opinion A top NOAA official is rebuking Trump. Good, but the pattern is bigger.

Rescuers search for bodies after Hurricane Dorian hits the Bahamas. (Fernando Llano/AP)

As you likely know, on Friday evening, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration put out an unsigned statement that — by shocking coincidence — just happened to support President Trump’s claim that he had good grounds for falsely asserting that Hurricane Dorian could hit Alabama.

In so doing, the NOAA statement flatly disavowed information that had been released by the Birmingham, Ala., office of the National Weather Service, which sought to set the record straight on Trump’s assertion by saying the storm would not in fact affect Alabama.

Now The Post reports that the NOAA’s chief scientist is looking into how the agency came to side with Trump:

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s acting chief scientist said in an email to colleagues Sunday that he is investigating whether the agency’s response to President Trump’s Hurricane Dorian tweets constituted a violation of NOAA policies and ethics. …
In an email to NOAA staff that was obtained by The Washington Post, NOAA’s Craig McLean called the agency’s response “political” and a “danger to public health and safety.” …
In his email to employees Sunday, McLean criticized his agency’s public statement, saying it prioritized politics over NOAA’s mission.
“The NWS Forecaster(s) corrected any public misunderstanding in an expert and timely way, as they should,” McLean wrote. “There followed, last Friday, an unsigned news release from 'NOAA’ that inappropriately and incorrectly contradicted the NWS forecaster. My understanding is that this intervention to contradict the forecaster was not based on science but on external factors including reputation and appearance, or simply put, political.”
He also wrote that “the content of this news release is very concerning as it compromises the ability of NOAA to convey life-saving information necessary to avoid substantial and specific danger to public health and safety."
“If the public cannot trust our information, or we debase our forecaster’s warnings and products, that specific danger arises,” McLean wrote.

That bureaucratic language is utterly damning. A top NOAA scientist is flatly claiming that information that was presented as scientific actually may have been expressly intended to prop up Trump’s falsehoods — and that the public might reasonably conclude it can no longer have confidence in that agency’s information.

This is the sort of information that theoretically can shape how untold numbers of people respond in the face of potentially dangerous circumstances, at a time when they’re relying on the government for good information and guidance.

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We’ll learn what this internal inquiry tells us soon enough. But for now, let’s note that this points to yet another way in which this affair is part of a larger pattern — and why that pattern is so troubling.

I already laid out numerous previous examples in which government officials wheeled into action to make Trump’s lies and obsessions into truths, in some cases putting out “official” information explicitly shaped to do so.

But there’s another side to this as well. In addition to the use of bad information to prop up Trump, we have also regularly seen this administration disregard or actively suppress seemingly good information that was generated internally, apparently because it contradicted the pursuit of goals already settled upon for other reasons.

The most glaring example of this came when numerous government agencies in Trump’s own administration concluded that climate change poses a dire long term threat to U.S. interests — and Trump blithely dismissed it by saying, “I don’t believe it.” Trump has continued on his quest to do everything possible to reverse policies designed to curb greenhouse gases, thus ensuring they increase.

Then there’s the time that Trump officials were debating whether to slash refugee flows, and Trump immigration adviser Stephen Miller actively intervened to bury internal data showing that refugees are actually a net economic positive for the country.

There’s also the time when the administration moved forward with the incarceration of migrant families even though a government official internally warned it could traumatize children.

And there’s the time that the administration moved forward with its thinly veiled Muslim ban based on the pretext that it was necessary for our national security — even though two internal Homeland Security analyses badly undercut that rationale. I’m sure I’m missing others.

Now the NOAA has apparently disregarded its own good information in the process of putting out bad information to conform to Trump’s falsehoods.

The pattern is just damning. And to reiterate, what makes this all so galling is that presidents have a formidable range of sources of good-faith empirical inquiry and information-gathering at their disposal to help them make difficult, complex governing decisions and inform the public about consequential public safety matters.

Yet in this administration, those tools are actively pressed into service to prop up falsehoods and obsessions that Trump spews out on a whim. Not only that, the data that public servants do produce are simply disregarded if they get in the way, or, as we’re seeing in this latest case, are overridden by bad information, all for the purpose of calming Trump’s obsessive rage.

Read more:

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