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Reported White House involvement takes NOAA scandal to new level

For a week, "Sharpie-gate" was more of a farcical head-scratcher than a scandal. It's far more serious now.
Mick Mulvaney
Director of the Office of Management and Budget Mick Mulvaney listens to a question during a press briefing at the White House, Saturday, Jan. 20, 2018, in Washington.

With a deadly hurricane approaching his own country, Donald Trump was fixated on a bogus warning he issued to Alabama, inviting escalating mockery as he took "Sharpie-gate" to new levels of absurdity.

The controversy became a lot less funny when the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration issued a written statement endorsing the president's false claims and criticizing professionals at the National Weather Service for having told the truth.

The New York Times reported that Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross, whose department includes the NOAA, threatened to fire top employees at the federal scientific agency on Friday unless the NOAA agreed to endorse the president's false claims. And while Ross' office denies the accuracy of the report, if the Times is right, it raises a series of questions about public safety, scientific integrity, Trump's war on reality, and weaponizing federal resources for political reasons.

But there was something about the details that seemed odd: late last week, Wilbur Ross wasn't even in the United States. He was in Greece for meetings and it seems implausible that he'd, out of the blue, interrupt his trip to lobby the NOAA leadership. If the reporting is correct and Ross made the threat, who directed him to intervene in the first place?

The New York Times shed light on this angle this afternoon:

The White House was directly involved in pressing a federal scientific agency to repudiate the weather forecasters who contradicted President Trump's claim that Hurricane Dorian would probably strike Alabama, according to several people familiar with the events.Mick Mulvaney, the acting White House chief of staff, told Wilbur Ross, the commerce secretary, to have the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration publicly disavow the forecasters' position that Alabama was not at risk. NOAA, which is part of the Commerce Department, issued an unsigned statement last Friday in response, saying that the Birmingham, Ala., office was wrong to dispute the president's warning.

White House involvement moves this away from a silly story about a childish president crudely drawing on a hurricane map, and toward a legitimate scandal involving political abuses of power.

The Washington Post had a related report today, explaining that Trump personally told his staff that the NOAA needed to correct National Weather Service tweet that didn't need correcting. It was this presidential instruction, the article added, that "led chief of staff Mick Mulvaney to call Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross to tell him to fix the issue."

For his part, Trump told reporters today that he wasn't directly responsible for lobbying the NOAA. "No, I never did that," the Republican said. "I never did that. It's a hoax by the media. That's just fake news, right from the beginning, it was a fake story."

Of course, given Trump's credibility, his denials can't be accepted at face value. What's more, if his team was directly involved, it doesn't much matter whether he personally picked up the phone to lean on the NOAA.

The controversy is already the subject of an inspector general's investigation, but the list of probes is growing: House Science Committee Chairwoman Eddie Bernice Johnson (D-Texas) began an examination today.

This would've been a one-day story on a holiday weekend if Trump hadn't grown outraged by brief media coverage of his mistake. Too often, the president seems incapable of getting out of his own way.