If Donald Trump were capable of shame, last week would’ve been a painful one for him. As a deadly hurricane approach the United States’ southeastern coast, the president was fixated on his false claim, peddled last weekend, that Alabama was among the states that were likely to “be hit (much) harder than anticipated” at a point at which the evidence said the opposite. Defying any sense of reason or propriety, the Republican spent day after day insisting he’d been right all along, despite having been wrong.
The ordeal, which included a crude manipulation of a hurricane-tracking map, told us something important about Trump’s approach to reality, as he tried and failed to bully the truth into submission. But on Friday afternoon, the story became a lot less funny.
The federal agency that oversees the National Weather Service has sided with President Trump over its own scientists in the ongoing controversy over whether Alabama was at risk of a direct hit from Hurricane Dorian.
In a statement released Friday afternoon, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) stated Alabama was in fact threatened by the storm at the time Trump tweeted Alabama would “most likely be hit (much) harder than anticipated.”
The NOAA, in an unsigned statement attributed to no one, even admonished the National Weather Service, effectively throwing NWS officials under the bus for saying Alabama was not at risk from Hurricane Dorian at a time when Alabama was not at risk from Hurricane Dorian.
I can appreciate why some news consumers grew weary of “Sharpie-gate” last week, but the NOAA’s statement on Friday afternoon put the story on a very different level. What was a farce about a president who couldn’t tolerate having been proven wrong became a drama about a president corrupting government agencies that rely on credibility to be effective.
The Washington Post’s Greg Sargent had a good piece last week, taking stock of the instances in which “government officials have wheeled into action in an effort to make Trump’s lies, errors and obsessions into truths,” and on Friday afternoon, the president added an unusually brazen example of the phenomenon.
I care when Trump lies about issues such as hurricanes and public safety; I care more about Trump roping in the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration to participate in his fraud.
Much of the country now realizes that the president has a strained relationship with reality and an intolerance for truth, but not to put too fine a point on this, we still need the NOAA to tell us the truth.
Not politically convenient truths, not truths intended to satisfy certain constituencies, not truths that incorporate the weather into some kind of misguided food fight, but the actual truth.
The Associated Press reported on Saturday that former top officials from the NOAA – veterans of Republican and Democratic administrations – were “dismayed” by what had transpired, with the agency obviously having succumbed to White House political pressure. The article added, “They say NOAA’s action risks the credibility of the nation’s weather and science agency and may even risk lives.”
The Washington Post added some additional details, including the fact that the National Weather Service in Birmingham felt compelled to issue its tweet “after receiving a flurry of phone calls from concerned residents following Trump’s message.”
In other words, the president delivered a false warning to the public, people who assumed the president was right grew concerned, so the National Weather Service told people the truth. For its trouble, the NWS’s commitment to accuracy was denounced on Friday afternoon by the federal agency that oversees it.
The same article added that the NOAA privately warned its own staff not to contradict Trump – despite the fact that Trump was wrong.
The Post quoted one NOAA meteorologist who said, “This is the first time I’ve felt pressure from above to not say what truly is the forecast. 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.”
Trump has publicly diminished a heretofore credible agency to satisfy his delicate sensibilities. To think this embarrassment is limited to a crude drawing on a map is to overlook just how far the president and his team took this potentially dangerous charade, and what this tells others throughout the U.S. government – scientists, intelligence officials, diplomats, et al. – about what happens to those who provide facts at odds with the leader’s preferred script.