The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Trump suggested his Alabama deception was a big joke. But NOAA isn’t laughing — and neither should we.

President Trump on Sept. 4 held up a map of Hurricane Dorian featuring an apparent Sharpie-drawn circle to falsely extend its projected path. (Video: The Washington Post, Photo: Bill O'Leary/The Washington Post)

President Trump’s supporters generally have a few different retorts to news about his serial untruths, which now include more than 12,000 false or misleading claims:

  1. It’s overblown by the media.
  2. Every politician does it.
  3. He’s doing it intentionally to troll the media and his opponents.

Trump himself leaned into this last one over the weekend. He tweeted a video around midnight Saturday that depicted CNN as a cat batting at a laser pointer as he moves it around Trump’s doctored map of Hurricane Dorian in which the storm shows a potential to hit Alabama. The message is unmistakable: He’s a master troll, making the media dance with a carefully crafted distraction.

There are a couple of problems with that. The first is that Trump’s own argument implies he’s being deceptive. The second is that treating “Sharpie-gate” as a meaningless distraction completely misses the point.

Let’s think for a second about what Trump tweeted Saturday night. He suggested that he’s not really doing all this because of Alabama and Dorian but rather to mess with people. (It would seem odd that someone who is so effectively pulling the wool over people’s eyes would come out and tell them that’s what he’s doing, but let’s set that aside for a second.) He’s effectively saying that he spent a full week of his presidency trolling the country with a trivial debate.

The thing about trolling is that it’s an inherently dishonest act. You get people to react to what you’re doing by saying something that you don’t really or fully believe. It sounds a lot like Trump is saying that his incorrect tweet warning about severe impacts from Dorian in Alabama was meant to elicit the outrage it received, or that his repeated defenses of the false tweet were meant to drag the story out rather than inform. Why can’t it just be him defending himself against a supposedly false allegation? Why float an ulterior motive for all of this?

It began on Sept. 1 when President Trump warned that Hurricane Dorian would hit Alabama. Capital Weather Gang's Jason Samenow presents a timeline of events. (Video: The Washington Post)

Probably because, as with many of Trump’s falsehoods, it’s an attractive alternate explanation for his supporters. The president has spent a week defending blatantly false information with nonsensical explanations, and nobody (well, almost nobody) can pretend otherwise. Better, then, to believe he’s doing it for some reason besides that he’s lying or is completely divorced from reality. It invites people to believe he’s really that secret political genius, wielding dishonesty for an actual purpose.

But even if we accept that explanation, this is hardly trivial. Even some mainstream journalists have pretended this whole thing isn’t worthy of all of our time or attention. But this was the president providing false information about a dangerous hurricane that was contradicted in real time by the National Weather Service. It’s better that he was overselling the danger for Alabama rather than underselling it, but he was still providing misinformation. What happens if he does that erring in the other direction?

And since then, we have seen Trump offer non-sequitur defenses. These include pointing to hurricane projection maps that were badly outdated at the time of his Alabama tweet and getting a rear admiral on the National Security Council to provide a statement alluding to “the possibility of tropical storm force winds” in Alabama (Trump, in fact, had suggested a much more severe and likely “hit”). By Friday night, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration issued a highly unorthodox and unsigned statement rebuking the Birmingham NWS office for its tweet contradicting Trump — a move that has drawn criticism from former NWS heads and the NWS employees’ union.

There are very real questions about how all this came to be, including whether the White House applied pressure on a government agency to misleadingly toe his political line. Reporters have quickly submitted FOIA requests for documentation of contacts between the White House and NOAA. We may never find proven wrongdoing, but the whole situation is remarkably suspicious — especially given the White House’s and Trump’s tendency to inject politics into generally nonpolitical government agencies and documented efforts to get them to do pretty much exactly what NOAA just did.

We know that NOAA leadership last week warned staff against contradicting Trump. Now its chief scientist is investigating whether the agency violated NOAA policies and ethics, calling the agency’s response “political” and a “danger to public health and safety.” And NWS Director Louis Uccellini is defending the forecasters whom NOAA rebuked in its unsigned statement.

It’s overly reductive to talk about this as if it’s just about an errant tweet Trump sent one weekend in the summer of 2019. It’s about a president who continually misinforms the American people and why and how the government around him participates in that misinformation.

And the president himself practically admitted this weekend that it’s all a big game to him.