President Trump’s inaccurate assertion that Hurricane Dorian was going to significantly affect Alabama exposed a flaw in the White House’s storm briefing process — some of those meetings did not include meteorologists. With additional storms spinning in the Atlantic, this gap could hamper preparedness and response efforts.
This is the case even though Trump has an advantage compared to his predecessors: the presence of a highly qualified meteorologist on his White House staff. Kelvin Droegemeier, a longtime research meteorologist, serves as the head of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP) and the president’s science adviser.
Yet he did not attend formal hurricane briefings provided to Trump in the run-up to Hurricane Dorian’s devastating strike in the northwest Bahamas and eventual landfall in North Carolina, according to a senior administration official.
Instead, Trump was sometimes briefed on the storm via a process run out of the National Security Council, with Coast Guard Rear Adm. Peter Brown, who serves as the White House homeland security and counterterrorism adviser, providing Trump the latest storm information while the president was at Camp David on the weekend of Aug. 30 and 31, and on subsequent occasions.
It was Brown who issued a statement on Sept. 5 saying he had told Trump that Alabama was at risk of seeing tropical-storm-force winds before the president inaccurately tweeted that the state would “most likely be hit (much) harder than anticipated” on Sept. 1.
“The President’s comments were based on that morning’s Hurricane Dorian briefing, which included the possibility of tropical storm force winds in southeastern Alabama,” Brown wrote.
On Sept. 6, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration issued its highly controversial news release admonishing the National Weather Service’s Birmingham office for issuing a definitive tweet that appeared to contradict the president, though it accurately predicted the storm’s path.
Another qualified meteorologist serving at a high level in the Trump administration, acting NOAA chief Neil Jacobs, was also not in attendance at certain key briefings. Jacobs has been criticized for his involvement in the Sept. 6 statement that may have violated his agency’s scientific integrity policy.
That statement came about after Trump told his staff that it needed to correct the statement that seemed to contradict him. That led White House acting chief of staff Mick Mulvaney to call Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross to tell him to fix the issue, which brought NOAA into the mix because it’s a Commerce Department agency.
There are now at least three investigations into the matter: by Congress, the NOAA chief scientist and the Commerce Department’s inspector general.
Before his government service, Jacobs ran a weather modeling group at Panasonic Avionics, and his focus at NOAA has been on improving the accuracy of the agency’s forecast models.
Jacobs briefed Trump on the forecast for Hurricane Dorian on Aug. 29, when he showed the president the National Hurricane Center’s five-day forecast cone for Dorian, a map that was later altered with a Sharpie to denote a possible impact in Alabama.
Jacobs was also in attendance at an afternoon briefing at the headquarters of the Federal Emergency Management Agency on Sept. 1, after Trump’s Alabama tweet earlier that day, when National Hurricane Center Director Ken Graham discussed the storm forecast via video conference from the Hurricane Center headquarters near Miami.
According to one participant at that meeting, Graham was asked about the storm’s threat to Alabama, and he told the president the storm was more likely to take a coastal route, missing that state.
White House press secretary Stephanie Grisham said the president was briefed on the storm every hour as it approached the United States.
A senior administration official who spoke on the condition of anonymity to be candid about a sensitive topic said those briefings were probably provided by the rear admiral, who is not a weather expert trained to explain and interpret computer model projections.
The official said that if Trump had been briefed by a meteorologist, he would not have mentioned Alabama. The same official said Droegemeier did not attend Trump’s hurricane briefings.
An OSTP spokesperson declined to comment on whether Droegemeier attended the formal storm briefings for the president.
“Dr. Droegemeier is in close contact with the White House and NOAA regarding all hurricane and natural disaster briefings,” the spokesperson said.
Bush, Obama administrations brought the weather experts into the room
The hurricane briefings worked differently under the administrations of former presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama.
According to Scott Rayder, who served as chief of staff to former NOAA administrator Conrad Lautenbacher under Bush, the agency fought hard to be included in the NSC hurricane meetings and presidential hurricane briefings. Their argument: “You need somebody who can explain the probability cone, what it means and what it doesn’t mean,” Rayder said in an interview. “I think it’s important you get a trained meteorologist in the room.”
Rayder acknowledged that it can be difficult to gain access to such briefings because there’s “always competition to get in front of the president and brief.”
John Holdren, a climate scientist who served as Obama’s science adviser, said Obama consulted with the relevant experts as storms threatened the country.
“In the case of real-time hurricane threats, President Obama would typically meet with me, the NOAA Administrator, the FEMA Administrator, and the National Weather Service Director — together and in person — before making a public statement. … In addition, because as Assistant to President I could see him and write him memos when needed, I often took the opportunity to update him early in the game on the science aspects of emerging issues,” Holdren said in an email.
“President Obama practically always consulted with me (and often with other scientists in the administration) before making public statements on matters involving science,” he added.
Holdren noted that Droegemeier, despite his sterling academic credentials and Senate-confirmed position, lacks the title of “assistant to the president” and therefore does not have the direct access to the Oval Office that he enjoyed during Obama’s presidency.
In addition, he cautioned that any discussions between the OSTP director and Trump are generally not made public, so it’s possible they were in touch about the storm forecast but have not publicly revealed it.
“Although Dr. Droegemeier was duly confirmed by the Senate as Director of the Office of Science and Technology Policy, he was not given the White House title of Assistant to the President. It is only the latter title that makes one a ‘direct report’ to the President and confers access — the ability to make an appointment to see the President and the ability to send him a message,” Holdren noted.
“Without that title, one can only get to the President with the intervention of someone who has it or, alternatively, because the President asks to see you.”