The tweet that started it all was well-intentioned but wrong. When President Trump warned on Sept. 1 that, “In addition to Florida — South Carolina, North Carolina, Georgia, and Alabama, will most likely be hit (much) harder than anticipated” by Hurricane Dorian, he shouldn’t have included Alabama. Although that state was at some risk in earlier projections, by the time Trump tweeted out his warning he was wrong. So wrong that the National Weather Service in Birmingham felt compelled to issue a tweet just 20 minutes later to clarify things:
At this point, it should be stressed that Trump’s warning lacked malice. It was not a lie, it was an error. Sure, it fed into the theme of Trump uttering falsehoods, but it was also pretty easy to correct. There were about a million different ways that the White House could have reduced this to a half-day story, including simple contrition.
Obviously, this did not happen. Instead, four days later, we got the Sharpie drawn on the weather map. As my Washington Post colleagues Matthew Cappucci and Andrew Freedman reported, “Asked about the altered hurricane forecast chart at a White House event on opioids Wednesday afternoon, Trump said his briefings included a ’95 percent chance probability’ that Alabama would be hit. When asked whether the chart had been drawn on, Trump said: ‘I don’t know; I don’t know.’ ” Then Trump would not stop tweeting about it.
What started as a minor media kerfuffle was upgraded to a Category One social media storm. But at this point, it was still a story about a president who doubled down on a minor mistake. It inspired some gentle mainstream media mockery. Before last Friday I would have agreed with the Federalist’s Mollie Hemingway that this was much ado about nothing. The best way to think about it at that moment was captured by Politico’s Nancy Cook:
An ill-timed, inaccurate but well-intentioned Twitter warning from President Donald Trump at the start of the week extended into a five-day presidential feud by Thursday, transforming a forgettable fact check of his words into an epic storm of attacks as the president repeatedly doubled down and dug in.Trump’s latest move of promulgating false information, blaming the media for the coverage of it and then subsequently turning that controversy into a seemingly pointless multiday story reminded current and former White House aides, advisers and Trump allies of all the times in business and government he has leaned on the same playbook of never, ever backing down.
As the story has matured, however, it has become much less funny. First, some reporters used Sharpiegate to raise ongoing questions about the president’s mental fitness. Business Insider’s Sonam Sheth reported that former and current White House aides were growing worried about Trump’s mental state “after days of wild outbursts, erratic behavior, and bizarre fixations.” Sheth quoted one former senior administration official saying, “People are used to the president saying things that aren’t true, but this Alabama stuff is another story. This was the president sending out patently false information about a national-emergency situation as it was unfolding.”
Then, more news came out about how Trump’s political appointees handled the brouhaha. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration released an unsigned statement endorsing Trump’s tweet at the expense of the National Weather Service. Then the hard-working staff at The Washington Post learned that back on Sept. 1, just after Trump’s tweet, the political appointees at NOAA felt compelled to issue a memo to its meteorologists:
In an agencywide directive sent Sept. 1 to National Weather Service personnel, hours after Trump asserted, with no evidence, that Alabama “would most likely be hit (much) harder than anticipated,” staff was told to “only stick with official National Hurricane Center forecasts if questions arise from some national level social media posts which hit the news this afternoon.”They were also told not to “provide any opinion,” according to a copy of the email obtained by The Washington Post....The agency sent a similar message warning scientists and meteorologists not to speak out on Sept. 4, after Trump showed a hurricane map from Aug. 29 modified with a hand-drawn, half-circle in black Sharpie around Alabama....“This is the first time I’ve felt pressure from above to not say what truly is the forecast,” the meteorologist said. “It’s hard for me to wrap my head around. One of the things we train on is to dispel inaccurate rumors and ultimately that is what was occurring — ultimately what the Alabama office did is provide a forecast with their tweet, that is what they get paid to do.”
This opened up several new fronts in the story. It evoked past times Trump officials tried to spin a Trump error as truthful. It reminded observers of other times Trump forced federal bureaucracies to keep their collective mouths shut about Trump’s Trumpiest claims. Perhaps most important, the memo triggered at least two investigations. NOAA’s chief scientist informed his staff that he would be investigating whether the unsigned statement violated NOAA’s administrative order on scientific integrity.
Then Sharpiegate escalated from a scientific scandal to something even bigger. The New York Times’s Christopher Flavelle, Lisa Friedman and Peter Baker reported that the Commerce Department’s Office of Inspector General decided to investigate the NOAA statement and asked everyone involved to preserve documents. So that makes two investigations of this. But that was not the bombshell part of their story: This was:
The Secretary of Commerce threatened to fire top employees at the federal scientific agency responsible for weather forecasts last Friday after the agency’s Birmingham office contradicted President Trump’s claim that Hurricane Dorian might hit Alabama, according to three people familiar with the discussion....Mr. Ross, the commerce secretary, intervened ... early last Friday, according to the three people familiar with his actions. Mr. Ross phoned Neil Jacobs, the acting administrator of NOAA, from Greece where the secretary was traveling for meetings and instructed Dr. Jacobs to fix the agency’s perceived contradiction of the president.Dr. Jacobs objected to the demand and was told that the political staff at NOAA would be fired if the situation was not fixed, according to the three individuals, who requested anonymity because they were not authorized to discuss the episode.
Again, it is worth stepping back and remembering that this all started with a simple and innocent mistake from a presidential tweet. All the Trump White House had to do was apologize for the error and move on. But that is not how this presidency works. Instead, there was a pathetic attempt to fix the problem with a Sharpie, and then an effort by political staff to countermand administration scientists, and then the revelation that a Cabinet official leaned on those political appointees, and now there are two concurrent investigations into the NOAA statement.
Multiple commentators suggest Trump’s transparent, easily fact-checked lies are exercises in power. By blatantly lying and then refusing to back down, the argument runs, Trump shows his supporters how powerful he is. I would suggest, however, that Sharpiegate pokes some flaws in the potency of that narrative. Trump made a misstatement and refused to back down. His subordinates took extraordinary steps to back him up, violating some scientific norms and possibly some laws in the process. The episode reminded everyone of the president’s inability to admit error and the ways he has sabotaged necessary bureaucracies. Trump converted a mild embarrassment into something far more egregious. Even observers who were prepared to walk away from the story now acknowledge its newsworthiness.
Trump has managed to turn Marx’s dictum on its head. For the 45th president, history repeats itself: first as farce, then as tragedy.