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Why a Trump cabinet sec reportedly threatened to fire NOAA officials

Who told NOAA to ignore science and promote Trump's misjudgments? One of the most controversial members of the Trump cabinet.
Image: Donald Trump, William Barr, Wilbur Ross
President Donald Trump, joined by Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross, left, and Attorney General William Barr, speaks during an event about the census in the Rose Garden at the White House in Washington, Thursday, July 11, 2019.

After a week of farcical presidential antics, Donald Trump's campaign to politicize hurricane forecasts took a truly ridiculous turn on Friday, when the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration issued a written statement endorsing the Republican's false claims about Hurricane Dorian threatening Alabama. The NOAA also took the extraordinary step of criticizing professionals at the National Weather Service for having told the truth.

It stood to reason NOAA leaders didn't come up with this scheme to prioritize politics over science on their own; someone must have directed the agency to embarrass itself. And who was it, pray tell, who told NOAA to reject reality? According to the New York Times, it was Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross, the cabinet secretary who oversees the agency.

The Secretary of Commerce threatened to fire top employees at the federal scientific agency responsible for weather forecasts last Friday after the agency's Birmingham office contradicted President Trump's claim that Hurricane Dorian might hit Alabama, according to three people familiar with the discussion. [...][A]ccording to the three people familiar with his actions. Mr. Ross phoned Neil Jacobs, the acting administrator of NOAA, from Greece where the secretary was traveling for meetings and instructed Dr. Jacobs to fix the agency's perceived contradiction of the president.Dr. Jacobs objected to the demand and was told that the political staff at NOAA would be fired if the situation was not fixed, according to the three individuals, who requested anonymity because they were not authorized to discuss the episode.

Apparently feeling as if he had little choice, Jacobs did as he was directed and rejected what was true.

There's no shortage of angles to a story like this. There are the potentially dangerous consequences, for example, of politicizing and undermining public confidence in weather forecasts. There's the question of authoritarian strong-arm tactics in which government officials are told that the misjudgments of The Leader must be made true, science and reality be damned.

There are the investigations into the ordeal, including one announced yesterday from the Commerce Department's Inspector General's office.

But I'm also curious about Wilbur Ross' future.

To be sure, the Commerce secretary's name is probably unfamiliar to much of the country, but Ross, whose office denied threatening to fire anyone, has quietly positioned himself as one of the most controversial members of a presidential cabinet filled with controversial members.

Ross' Census gambit was accused of being an illegal scheme that helped derail a White House priority. It was part of this same fiasco that Ross was accused of allegedly lying to Congress.

He's also reportedly misled the public about his wealth and faced awkward questions about whether he honored his commitments about divesting from his private-sector holdings before taking office.

Ross also doesn't appear to be especially good at his job. Politico reported in July that the Commerce Department, under Ross' leadership, has become "chaotic," reaching "new heights of dysfunction." The article characterized the secretary as basically clueless and reluctant to hold routine meetings with senior staffers.

One source added, "Because he tends to fall asleep in meetings, they try not to put him in a position where that could happen so they're very careful and conscious about how they schedule certain meetings."

Under the circumstances, it's hardly surprising that some in Congress are starting to talk openly about the need for Ross' resignation.

Update: The Commerce Department continues to deny the accuracy of the New York Times' reporting, calling it "false," and insisting that the secretary "did not threaten to fire any NOAA staff over forecasting and public statements about Hurricane Dorian."