Wilbur Ross Reportedly Threatened to Fire NOAA Officials for Making Trump Look Dumb

Photo: Chip Somodevilla (Getty)

Remember last week, when the news cycle was dominated by stories about Hurricane Dorian and its potential to do grave damage to the East Coast, and how the president kept insisting that it might hit Alabama because he refused to admit he was wrong? I, a North Carolina resident, remember it well.

Well, Dorian’s basically gone now, but the other thing? Still going strong.

The New York Times reported on the latest development in this incredibly dumb saga on Monday, which is that Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross reportedly threatened to fire top officials at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), the government agency tasked with tracking dangerous weather. The alleged reason? The National Weather Service’s Birmingham office’s audacity to contradict the non-weatherman president’s insistence that the hurricane was going to hit Alabama. (The National Weather Service eventually released an unsigned statement backing up Trump, but the agency’s director later publicly praised the Birmingham office.)

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Per the Times, here’s how Ross decided to handle this situation, emphasis mine:

Mr. Ross, the Commerce Secretary, intervened two days later, early last Friday, according 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. Unlike career government employees, political staff are appointed by the administration. They usually include a handful of top officials, such as Dr. Jacobs, and their aides.

In an uncommon occurrence, the Times also called bullshit on its own anonymous administration source, who claimed that the NWS Birmingham office was really wrong the whole time and just wanted to make Trump look bad.

However, a senior administration official who asked not to be identified when discussing internal deliberations said that the Birmingham office had been wrong and that NOAA had simply done the responsible thing and corrected the record.

That official suggested the Twitter post by the Birmingham forecasters had been motivated by a desire to embarrass the president more than concern for the safety of people in Alabama. The official provided no evidence to support that conclusion.

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To reiterate, all of this is about Trump screwing up and his continuing refusal to admit he was wrong. Alabama’s been through its fair share of destructive hurricanes and thus seemingly didn’t take this throwaway warning from Trump too seriously, but come the fuck on! The stakes are quite a bit higher in an actual hurricane than Trump’s Beef of the Week with a liberal celebrity.

Then again, as my colleague Rafi Schwartz informed me earlier, the NOAA’s entire existence in the Commerce department owes itself to Richard Nixon being a petty dickhead to his Interior secretary. Grudges: a time-honored tradition in the American presidency.

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Update, 9/10/2019, 8:40 a.m. ET: In an email to Splinter, a Commerce department spokesperson said that the New York Times story was “false,” and that Ross didn’t threaten to fire anyone at NOAA. 

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