Commerce Secretary Threatened to Fire Officials for Contradicting Trump on Dorian

Published on September 9, 2019 by Athena Pallas

Reports emerged today that Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross threatened to fire top officials at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) unless there was a retraction to statements contradicting President Trump’s assertion that Alabama was forecast to be directly in Hurricane Dorian’s path. And these threats may have yielded results in the form of Friday’s unsigned statement from NOAA backing up Trump’s claims, despite original National Weather Service (NWS) assertions to the contrary (NWS is a branch of NOAA). According to the New York Times, Ross contacted acting NOAA Administrator Neil Jacobs, asking Jacobs to remedy the perception that NOAA had contradicted Trump. Jacobs was initially reluctant to take action on Ross’s request, which is when Ross reportedly threatened to fire the political staff at NOAA.

In yet another bizarre incident that involves layer after layer of intrigue where none was necessary, rather than admit he made an error, President Trump has gone to great lengths to say he was not wrong in claiming Hurricane Dorian was expected to hit Alabama. After National Weather Service personnel in Birmingham, Alabama, corrected Trump’s assertion, as a matter of public safety, not person hubris, Trump became entrenched in his position. Trump used weather projections that were already several days old when he made his claim in order to try to bolster it, producing a map that now infamously appeared to have been altered with a Sharpie marker to include Alabama in Dorian’s path. Then on Friday came that unsigned statement from NOAA, backing up Trump, which many saw as an affront to facts, to science, and to public safety, as well as an effort to appease Trump. Now we hear that Wilbur Ross was reportedly involved to apply pressure to get NOAA to support Trump by disavowing statements from its own NWS scientists. The Commerce Department, speaking on Ross’s behalf, denies the allegations. According to The Hill:

Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross threatened to fire top employees at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) after officials contradicted President Trump’s claim that Alabama could be impacted by Hurricane Dorian, according to a report by The New York Times. The Commerce Department later denied the story in a statement to The Hill. …Ross contacted acting NOAA Administrator Neil Jacobs two days later and asked him to fix issues related to the perception that the agency had contradicted Trump, The New York Times reported Monday, citing three people familiar with the discussion. The newspaper said that Jacobs initially objected. He was then told that political staff at NOAA would be dismissed if the situation wasn’t resolved. On Friday, an unsigned NOAA statement was issued that affirmed Trump’s claims and disavowing the tweet from the National Weather Service in Birmingham about the hurricane. 

These allegations that Secretary Ross put concern for Trump’s ego ahead of concern for facts have some calling for Ross to resign. It is certainly true that it is important that the National Weather Service, operating under NOAA, be seen as a trustworthy source of information, a reputation potentially polluted by their apparent concession to Ross’s demands. Representative Don Beyer (D-VA), who is a member of the House Science, Space and Technology Committee was one of those calling for Ross to resign, saying of Ross, according to The Hill, “His direct attacks on the scientists and federal employees, whom he threatened to fire for doing their jobs by accurately reporting the weather, are an embarrassing new low for a member of this Cabinet which has been historically venal and incompetent.” The Sierra Club also called for Ross to step down and echoed concerns that scientific integrity was undermined by Ross’s actions, saying in a statement, according to The Hill, “Ross’ actions undermine scientific integrity within the Commerce Department for political purposes, and could erode trust in essential public health agencies. His actions, on behalf of Donald Trump, threatened to instill panic simply to give cover for Trump.” Representative Paul Tonko (D-NY) said, according to The Hill, “Reporting now suggests that Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross put the safety of countless Americans at risk by compromising America’s hurricane warning system just to protect the President’s ego. If these reports are true, Secretary Ross needs to take responsibility and resign.”

So much trouble has been caused by Donald Trump’s continued refusal to admit he is ever wrong. Beyond not admitting fault, Trump doesn’t even stay silent on the subject, but keeps tweeting and fabricating and digging in his heels to say he’s not wrong. Was it Trump who told Ross to threaten NOAA with firings? It seems unlikely that Ross came up with that on his own. Again, the Commerce Department denies that the report from the New York Times is accurate, with the Commerce Department stating that Ross made no such threats of firings. The Times indicated it had three sources for the information in its report.

Featured image of Commerce Secretary Ross with President Trump and Attorney General Barr via Wikimedia Commons.