The Commerce Department inspector general issued a delayed and harshly critical report laying out how political pressure originating from the White House resulted in the issuance of a poorly crafted and unsigned National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) statement on Sept. 6, 2019.
That statement, the inspector general found, damaged NOAA’s reputation for issuing apolitical guidance and eroded public trust in an agency tasked with protecting life and property. The report, however, contains no recommendations for punishing officials or major changes to department policies and procedures.
The inspector general, Peggy Gustafson, an appointee of President Barack Obama, found that the scandal that became known as “Sharpiegate” could have broader repercussions. The United States is bracing for what is expected to be an unusually active hurricane season, which comes amid a worsening coronavirus pandemic affecting multiple hurricane-prone states, including Florida and Texas. Just after the report was released, Tropical Storm Fay formed off the Mid-Atlantic coast, the earliest sixth named storm on record.
“The broader, longer-term consequence is that NOAA’s rebuke of the NWS Birmingham office could have a chilling effect on NWS forecasters’ future public safety messages, as well as undercut public trust in NWS forecasts,” the report stated.
The imbroglio began Sept. 1, when Trump tweeted that Alabama was at risk from Hurricane Dorian, which was devastating the Bahamas at the time. Trump falsely asserted that the state would “most likely be hit (much) harder than anticipated” by the powerful hurricane.
In addition to Florida - South Carolina, North Carolina, Georgia, and Alabama, will most likely be hit (much) harder than anticipated. Looking like one of the largest hurricanes ever. Already category 5. BE CAREFUL! GOD BLESS EVERYONE!— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) September 1, 2019
When Trump sent the tweet, the official Hurricane Center forecast showed the storm skirting the East Coast far away from Alabama. Only one National Hurricane Center forecast product was showing any potential impact in Alabama — a 5 to 20 percent chance of tropical-storm-force winds in a small portion of the state.
In response to calls from panicked residents who saw Trump’s tweet, NOAA’s National Weather Service forecast office in Birmingham, Ala., indicated in a tweet of its own that Alabama was not at serious risk from the Category 5 storm. To calm fears, not knowing Trump had stoked the concern, it tweeted: “Alabama will NOT see any impacts from #Dorian. We repeat, no impacts from Hurricane #Dorian will be felt across Alabama. The system will remain too far east.”
The dissonance between the two tweets, as well as Trump’s continued insistence that he was correct about the Alabama forecast, culminated with the president displaying an NOAA hurricane forecast map altered with a Sharpie during a storm briefing in the Oval Office, which earned the scandal the name “Sharpiegate.”
The episode foreshadowed subsequent Trump administration science controversies, including the White House’s repeated dismissals of public health advice for responding to the coronavirus pandemic.
According to the inspector general’s report — which does not include redactions, not even for presidential privilege — then-acting White House chief of staff Mick Mulvaney instructed Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross on Sept. 5 to have the public record corrected in favor of the president, and Mulvaney and Ross were involved in the statement approval process.
“As it currently stands, it appears as if the NWS intentionally contradicted the president. And we need to know why,” Mulvaney wrote on Sept. 5. “He wants either a correction or an explanation or both,” Mulvaney wrote, presumably speaking of the president. He said he was with the president when he tweeted about the threat to Alabama, although he dates it as taking place on Saturday, when the tweet actually went up on a Sunday.
The drafting of the statement was spearheaded by senior Commerce Department staff members, particularly chief of staff and acting general counsel Michael Walsh and then-acting deputy general counsel David Dewhirst. Neither of them has a meteorology background.
The issuance of the statement, the inspector general found, damaged NOAA’s reputation as a science and public safety agency.
“The Department’s and NOAA’s actions,” in the words of one senior NOAA official, “hit at the core” of NOAA,” the report concludes. “The Statement undercut the NWS’s forecasts and potentially undercut public trust in NOAA’s and the NWS’s science and the apolitical nature of that science.”
The report added that “the Department displayed poor judgment in exercising its authority over NOAA” and “failed to understand the public safety intent underlying the Birmingham NWS tweet.”
The release of the inspector general’s report was delayed due to a stalemate between the Commerce Department and the inspector general’s office over issues relating to what information is internal to the government and should not be made available to the public. The department asserted broad privilege claims without specifying text to redact, leaving the inspector general’s office with the choice of releasing an unredacted report and risking potential blowback from the administration.
The inspector general’s office had released summary findings from the report on June 29 prior to the release of the full report.
The report is particularly problematic for Walsh, who is awaiting Senate confirmation to the position of Commerce Department general counsel. The report found he and Dewhirst “did not exercise the appropriate judgment or have the appropriate science background to have leading roles in navigating these events on behalf of a science agency.”
“While Mr. Mulvaney issued a request for ‘a correction or an explanation or both,’ the Department, and significantly Mr. Walsh and Mr. Dewhirst, bear responsibility for transforming what could be interpreted as an innocuous request for an explanation of the NWS Birmingham tweet into a request that required a publicly issued statement that rebuked NWS Birmingham,” the report states.
Walsh said the report’s conclusions were “completely unsupported” by the evidence presented, accusing the inspector general of cherry-picking information from interviews and taking facts out of context. “The record shows that the process I designed [for the statement] for open and collaborative and intended to achieve a consensus-based outcome,” he wrote.
In a response to the report, Sean Brebbia, acting deputy general counsel for the Commerce Department, wrote that the investigation did not “dispute the accuracy” of the Sept. 6 statement, did not find department officials “suppressed scientific communications or work products” and did not find “NOAA’s ability to fulfill its mission was negatively affected.”
Brebbia concluded, “the absence of any formal recommendation” in the report “shows that there were no major flaws in the Department’s handling of this situation.”
Rep. Eddie Bernice Johnson (D-Tex.), chairwoman of the House Science Committee, said she was “deeply distressed” by the report’s findings.
“[T]he politics of defending the President at all costs trumped the dissemination of sound science,” Johnson wrote in a statement. “Political interference should never again be allowed to distract or demoralize the scientific leadership and career scientists at NOAA and the National Weather Service.”
In response to the report, Sen. Maria Cantwell (D-Wash.), ranking member of the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee, came out against Walsh’s nomination for General Counsel. She wrote the report “makes clear that Michael Walsh was instrumental in suppressing scientific information at NOAA.”
She also said she opposed acting NOAA administrator Neil Jacobs’s pending nomination for the permanent position in light of the report and his role in drafting the statement.
“[L]eaders of a scientific agency like NOAA must hold themselves, and their agency, to the highest scientific integrity standard,” Cantwell said in a statement. “Unfortunately, the report released today makes it crystal clear Neil Jacobs is not that leader, and he failed to protect scientists from political influence."
The report portrays Jacobs as being caught in the middle of the controversy, attempting to walk the line between following orders from his superiors and not undermining the agency’s scientific integrity.
“[Jacobs] summarized his options that day as (1) resigning, (2) refusing to allow NOAA to issue the Statement (and thus potentially being fired), or (3) revising the Statement to make it less inflammatory and more technically correct,” the report says.
Jacobs felt he could make the statement more accurate, the report said, and he and his communications director Julie Kay Roberts pushed back against the sentence admonishing the NWS Birmingham office, but were overruled by Dewhirst, the report said. However, the report also said Dewhirst, Walsh, Ross and other Commerce officials present did not recall any objection to the line referencing the NWS Birmingham tweet.
The report said Jacobs and Roberts felt great pressure to follow orders from Commerce officials or risk losing their jobs. Walsh and Ross denied that they threatened anyone’s job over issuing the statement.
The inspector general’s examination of “the circumstances surrounding the statement” was launched on Sept. 7, 2019, amid fierce public blowback against NOAA. It was one of three investigations that arose out of the unusual NOAA move to back Trump’s Alabama assertions, and the only one that secured access to White House communications and was granted interviews with senior Commerce Department officials.
A separate investigation, initiated by NOAA’s acting chief scientist Craig McLean and carried out by the independent National Academy of Public Administration, was completed in June and found that the agency’s issuance of the statement violated its scientific integrity policy.
The House Science Committee is also conducting an investigation and is expected to release a report.
Previous Sharpiegate coverage