LATE-NIGHT COMICS have had quite a field day with “Sharpiegate.” How could they not? From the start, the events surrounding President Trump’s false claim that Hurricane Dorian was headed for Alabama seemed like some sort of silly joke. But what has played out over the past week — an administration threatening scientists and undermining a critical government agency to back up a president who can’t just say he made a mistake — is not at all laughable. It is serious and dangerous and, sad to say, par for the course for a White House that is clearly scornful of both science and federal workers.
If any agency should be free of politics, one would think it would be the one that forecasts the weather. Instead, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) is embroiled in controversy for issuing an unusual statement in which it took the president’s side against that of its own scientists. It defended Mr. Trump’s inaccurate tweet about Hurricane Dorian posing an unexpected threat to Alabama and admonished federal weather forecasters in Birmingham, Ala., who had corrected the false report after it prompted questions from a worried public.
The unsigned statement from NOAA came after several days of Mr. Trump insisting he was right (at one point presenting a weather map that had been altered with a marker) and after, according to the New York Times, Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross had threatened to fire people. The Post reported that Mr. Trump pushed his staff to get NOAA to act and that acting White House chief of staff Mick Mulvaney called Mr. Ross and told him to fix the issue.
Investigations have been opened by the Office of Inspector General of the Commerce Department and the House Science, Space and Technology Committee. It is important they find out exactly what happened. What is at stake is the agency’s credibility and, ultimately, the public’s safety. That scientists were rebuked because they took quick action to let people in Alabama know they didn’t face danger from the hurricane — that they didn’t need to think about evacuating or rushing to the grocery store or picking their children up from day care — is, or should be, unfathomable. This, though, is an administration that seems to delight in thumbing its nose at scientific expertise; witness its refusal to recognize the dangers of climate change.
There are some bright lights in this depressing story. Hats off to National Weather Service Director Louis Uccellini and to NOAA acting chief scientist Craig McLean for breaking with their bosses and backing the forecasters who were doing their jobs. They showed the kind of pluck and professionalism that are sadly lacking at 1600 Pennsylvania Ave.