While it was dismissed by some as an overhyped media obsession, the presidential scandal that has come to be known as "Sharpiegate" was, in fact, an early warning sign of the truly catastrophic potential of Donald Trump.
The story arose out of Hurricane Dorian, which began its deliberate march up toward the East Coast of the United States in late August and early September of 2019. It ravaged the Bahamas, and officials feared the damage it could inflict stateside. But then came a Trump tweet on Sept. 1, and later comments to reporters, in which he warned that Alabama was in the storm's path. He said it was among the states "most likely be hit (much) harder than anticipated."
This wasn't true, and his false claim set off a series of troubling events. Most infamously, he later showed a weather forecast map that appeared to have been altered with a Sharpie to falsely extend the storm's path into Alabama — a truly absurd and ridiculous spectacle that earned the president widespread derision. But his tweet also led to the NOAA’s National Weather Service office in Birmingham to tweet out contradictory information, telling readers: "Alabama will NOT see any impacts from #Dorian." That tweet sparked fury within the administration, and the Commerce Department later rebuked the office in a contentious statement.
Because of Trump's particular personal style, the episode had an element of farce that led some to dismiss its importance. Others — including me — argued that having reliable communication about severe weather events is actually a vital government function, and Trump's actions showed in disturbing fashion how he can undermine this role. And a new report from the Commerce Department inspector general, examining the lead-up to the statement, affirmed this view and strengthened the case that the administration's actions were deeply objectionable. In light of the administration's disastrous handling of the coronavirus pandemic, the Hurricane Dorian episode reads as an ominous preview of the catastrophic habits of the president and the people he surrounds himself with.
Here are seven key details from the report:
1. Mick Mulvaney was at the center of it all.
The president's then-chief of staff sparked a process that led to a statement rebuking the Birmingham office for contradicting the president, according to an email included in the report. We can probably assume Mulvaney was carrying out Trump's orders, but even without this assumption, this fact shows that the highest levels of the administration were involved in actions that ended up undermining scientific integrity in favor of what was perceived to be good public relations.
This habit continued into the coronavirus crisis to disastrous effect. Trump has repeatedly downplayed the severity of the pandemic because he clearly believes acknowledging the scale of the crisis will hurt the economy and thus his re-election chances.
2. The inspector general concluded the statement rebuking the Birmingham office undermined public safety.
The report explains:
[The] very issuance of the Statement had public safety implications. An immediate, but briefly lived, consequence was that leaders at some NWS offices lost or had diminished connections with their emergency management contacts after having to turn off their mobile phones due to the number of calls about the Statement. However, the broader, longer-term consequence is that NOAA’s rebuke of the NWS Birmingham office could have a chilling effect on NWS forecasters’ future public safety messages, as well as undercut public trust in NWS forecasts. [emphasis added]
These long-term threats to NWS are important, but thankfully, there's been no indication yet that Trump's conduct toward the agency has led to tangible harm. But in the case of the coronavirus pandemic, it's doubtlessly true that Trump had consistently thwarted the public health messaging of his own administration and even intentionally undermined the scientific advice of his own experts. The pandemic is now resurgent after he rushed to reopen against the experts' advice, and many people are sick and dying as a result.
3. Evidence undermined the White House's apparent fears of the "deep state."
The report found:
Mr. Mulvaney’s request appears to have been based on the perception that NWS Birmingham “intentionally contradicted” President Trump, who tweeted on September 1, in reference to Hurricane Dorian, that “[i]n addition to Florida – South Carolina, North Carolina, Georgia, and Alabama, will most likely be hit (much) harder than anticipated.” However, evidence demonstrates that NWS Birmingham was responding to questions from the public, and we found no evidence that NWS Birmingham was aware that President Trump had tweeted that Alabama would most likely be hit harder than anticipated by Hurricane Dorian.
So it seems the White House thought the NWS Birmingham office was trying to undermine the president, and it wanted to knock the office down a peg. This shows the fundamentally paranoid and self-obsessed nature of Trump's presidency, and this disturbing trait has clearly impacted the president's handling of the coronavirus. He has even suggested people wear masks, which experts believe are one of the best ways to prevent spread of the virus, to "signal disapproval of him." This childish way of thinking has almost certainly encouraged his followers to eschew masks as a way of showing support for him.
4. The relatively minor event had an impact on employee morale
Because of the dust-up caused by the Birmingham office's tweet, the subsequent statement, and then the public criticism of the statement, employees of the agency were understandably upset:
At the conclusion of our fieldwork, NOAA employees said that they did not think that NOAA will be permanently damaged by the issuance of the Statement. Although NOAA’s credibility and employees’ morale took a serious hit, NOAA employees expressed their readiness to move forward.
Despite employees’ readiness to move forward, we pursued this work because the Department’s and NOAA’s actions, in the words of one senior NOAA official, “hit at the core” of NOAA. The Statement undercut the NWS’s forecasts and potentially undercut public trust in NOAA’s and the NWS’s science and the apolitical nature of that science.
This level of political involvement in scientific and public safety matters is disheartening for staff. At least in the NOAA case, the episode was short-lived. But it's hard to imagine the ongoing health crisis, and Trump's disastrous and partisan leadership of the response, isn't severely compromising morale for public health officials in government. Many may decide to pack up and leave as a result, which could cause lasting damage to vital institutions. Their ability to warn the public about the dangers has certainly been chilled because of the president's actions.
5. The controversy undermined the good work of NOAA.
The report also noted that because of all the attention that the statement controversy attracted, the agency was unable to draw attention to its genuine success:
The attention generated by the Statement cost NOAA and NWS the opportunity to highlight what Dr. Jacobs suggested should have been an important success story that week: that NOAA’s weather forecasting model correctly predicted the path of Hurricane Dorian and proved more accurate than the European model. As stated in an email that Dr. Jacobs sent on September 6, 2019, preliminary statistics showed a “[v]ery good forecast for a tricky storm that stalled.” (See appendix I.) In the end, this apparent success story of the important science-based accomplishment was overshadowed by actions the Department set in motion in response to an external demand.
Failing to get the public to understand when the government is working right is a significant opportunity cost, but under Trump, we're paying it every day.
6. Internal concerns about the political agenda were overridden.
Much this fallout was preventable. People within NOAA warned against releasing the statement:
[Even] before the Statement was publicly issued, the internal reactions were negative. When Dr. Jacobs contacted key people at NOAA, including NOAA’s then Chief of Staff and senior career employees, to notify them of the forthcoming Statement, the immediate reactions included shock, disappointment, and attempts to talk Dr. Jacobs out of letting the Statement go forward, particularly with the line rebuking the NWS Birmingham office.
As the coronavirus has devastated the United States, this pattern has happened again and again. Dr. Anthony Fauci, for example, has repeatedly and even publicly warned against Trump's actions, only to have his warnings ignored for no good reason.
7. Political considerations trumped everything else.
Fundamentally, the report makes clear that the leadership in the administration wasn't concerned with doing what was best for the agency or for the public understanding of science. They were doing what they thought was best for Trump:
Mr. Walsh assembled the team of NOAA and Departmental officials to work on the task for Secretary Ross and the White House. Of the team he assembled, the most involved participants were Mr. Walsh, Dr. Jacobs, and Mr. Dewhirst. While Dr. Jacobs had the relevant substantive, scientific knowledge, senior officials on NOAA’s political team suggested that they should have been involved to advise him on how to navigate this situation. To our knowledge, Mr. Walsh and Mr. Dewhirst do not have formal training or work experience in meteorology or emergency communications. Nonetheless, they both said that they concluded that the NWS Birmingham tweet needed to be corrected. Mr. Dewhirst, who was described as someone who “tends to not be afraid to just blow things up,” took a leading role in drafting the Statement and, according to Ms. Roberts and one NOAA Communications employee, overruled an objection to the line that rebuked NWS Birmingham. [emphais added]
But the report also noted that this kind of conduct isn't even good for Trump:
Ultimately, NOAA issued a Statement that, from the perspective of one senior NOAA official, “hurt the Department and it hurt NOAA, it hurt the White House, it hurt the public, it hurt the science community.” And, specifically with respect to NWS, the line in the Statement that rebuked NWS Birmingham undercut NWS forecasters and created the possibility that forecasters would second-guess or delay their public safety tweets or warnings—an issue with life-and-death consequences, given the public safety role of NWS.
This, too, is a key aspect of the coronavirus response. Trump's narrow focus on his re-election always makes him aim for the short-term win or the message that will succeed for the next news cycle. But his re-election chances would actually be much better if he took a longer view and decided that grappling with the science and figuring out how to crush the virus was most important.
As Sharpiegate showed, though, Trump is simply repeating his own self-destructive habits, and the cost is falling on all of us.