Newly released internal emails show the U.S. government’s behind-the-scenes angst over a “doctored” weather map President Donald Trump used in the Oval Office to support his inaccurate claim regarding the forecast path for Hurricane Dorian and whether it showed a likely hit on Alabama.
The documents were released late Friday by NOAA in response to a Freedom of information Act response to Buzzfeed and The Washington Post.
Trump had displayed the map on Sept. 4 to counter claims in a tweet three days earlier that as Hurricane Doran approached the U.S. coast, Alabama was among the states that “will most likely be hit (much) harder than anticipated.”
The trove of emails and internal statements show outrage and annoyance among some in the weather bureau ranks over “Sharpiegate,” the crude redrawing of an official hurricane forecast map that the president used to prove he had been right.
In a leadup to the Oval Office demonstration, the NOAA leadership had already issued an unattributed statement defending the president’s false claims.
That statement specifically criticized a tweet by the National Weather Service office in Birmingham, Alabama, issued shortly after Trump’s initial Twitter claims, and said pointedly that Alabama would “NOT see any impacts from the hurricane.”
Officials later said they issued the tweet not to rebuke the president but because they were getting concerned calls from the public regarding whether the hurricane was headed toward the state.
While the escapade played out in public, the pull and tugging played out behind the scenes, according to the documents.
At one point, NOAA staff were warned not to contradict the president and told not to “provide any opinion about the issue.”
That in turn, stirred a torrent of opposition internally.
“I find it unconscionable that an anonymous voice inside of NOAA would be found to castigate a dutiful, correct, and loyal NWS Forecaster who spoke the truth,” NOAA’s acting chief scientist Craig McLean wrote in an email to leading officials.
“What concerns me most is that this Administration is eroding the public trust in NOAA for an apparent political recovery from an ill-timed and imprecise comment from the President. I hope that NOAA’s trust in the public eye will outlast this Administration.”
“Our employees need to know that we stand for science, not politically motivated apologies,” he added.
Gary Shigenaka, a senior biologist at NOAA, asked the agency’s acting secretary of commerce, Neil Jacobs, to “address this crisis in moral leadership” and reassure employees they were not “mere pawns in an absurd game.”
“Please do not allow the science and support that we perform on behalf of the American public to be tossed into the trash heap by political expediencies,” he said. “Please support and stand with us.”
The email further showed that Ret. Rear Adm. Tim Gallaudet, the No. 2 official at the agency, claimed that neither he nor acting administrator, Jacobs, had approved the controversial unsigned statement issued Sept. 6.
“[P]lease accept Neil’s reply as a sincere acknowledgment of a press release we did not approve or support,” Gallaudet said in an email to Shigenaka on Sept. 8. “You know from my multiple messages to you and your colleagues that we respect and stand behind your service and scientific integrity.”
At the time of the controversy, The Washington Post reported that White House acting chief of staff Mick Mulvaney, following a request by Trump, had demanded the NOAA unsigned statement and had pressed Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross to fix the issue.
Trump has denied directed NOAA to issue such a statement, saying. “No, I never did that. I never did that. It’s a hoax by the media. That’s just fake news.”
The FOIA documents addressing the Commerce Department’s role have been redacted because of an ongoing Commerce Department Inspector General investigation into the matter the Post reports.
At one point during the rolling scandal, the NOAA staff, according to the documents, were consumed with how to counter it.
“How do you want to handle this one? Looks like someone at the WH drew with a marker on the image of our official forecast,” Scott Smullen, deputy director of NOAA communications, told colleagues in an email, according to the released documents.
Under the subject line, “Tweet shows POTUS altering NHC map,’ Jerry Slaff, public affairs specialist at the NOAA, emailed Smullen, saying flatly that the president’s map “shows a sharpie extension of cone to include Alabama.”
In another document, Corey Pieper, an official in the NWS communications division, said to public affairs official Susan Buchanan: “Yes, that was doctored,”
Although some early forecast models of the hurricane suggested Alabama had a chance of being in the storm’s path, those had been issued several days before. There is no evidence that Alabama was in danger at the time of the president’s notorious tweet.
In one missive, McLean emails colleagues: “What’snext? climate science is a hoax? Flabbergasted to leave our forecasters hanging in the political wind. Embarrassed, Craig.”