IG: Commerce Department erred when backing Trump during Hurricane Dorian

By ANDREW FREEDMAN AND JASON SAMENOW | The Washington Post | Published: June 30, 2020

The Commerce Department inspector general has faulted the department for its role in pressuring the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration to issue an unsigned statement backing President Donald Trump’s claims that Hurricane Dorian would affect Alabama severely, against the guidance of its own forecasters.

A report says the Commerce Department ran a “flawed process” that went against the interests of NOAA and the National Weather Service, which are branches of the department.

The report, from Inspector General Peggy Gustafson, an appointee of President Barack Obama, took 10 months to complete; a summary of it was posted online late Monday night. That document includes redactions that it says the Commerce Department requested, “while the Department and its stakeholders complete a pending privilege review.”

The full report, which also will contain redactions, was not yet posted on the inspector general’s website as of Tuesday morning, despite the memo’s statement that it would be posted June 29.

The summary of the report does not make clear what the White House role was in pressuring the Commerce Department to have NOAA issue a statement, and that might be the focus of some of the redactions.

The Sept. 6, 2019, NOAA statement backed up repeated, inaccurate claims by Trump regarding the hurricane’s threat to Alabama and contradicted public statements and weather forecasts issued by NOAA’s National Weather Service forecast office in Birmingham, Ala. The inspector general’s examination of “the circumstances surrounding the statement” began Sept. 7 amid fierce public blowback against NOAA.

The memo summarizing the inspector general’s report concluded that the Commerce Department “led a flawed process that discounted NOAA participation.” The unsigned statement released by NOAA, which backed the president, involved only acting administrator Neil Jacobs and his communications director, Julie Kay Roberts, both political appointees.

It did not engage scientists within the National Weather Service, which was found to be a violation of NOAA’s scientific integrity policy, according to a separate investigation released earlier this month.

The inspector general’s report also found that the unsigned statement “did not further NOAA’s or NWS’s interests.” The statement’s release provoked an uproar among NOAA constituents, who said it harmed the agency’s credibility. Scientists and high-level officials within NOAA expressed outrage, as shown in records released in several Freedom of Information Act requests from The Washington Post and other media outlets. Many feared the statement would damage public trust in NWS forecasts.

The inspector general’s report further faulted the Commerce Department for not sufficiently considering “the public safety intent” of a tweet from the NWS Birmingham office, which appeared to contradict the president when it stated that Dorian would not affect Alabama.

The Birmingham office made clear afterward that it was not responding to the president but trying to calm public fears after receiving an influx of phone calls and other messages from concerned residents in the region. It was only after the Birmingham office issued its tweet that employees there saw the president’s message.

Officials in the Commerce Department knew that but ordered the NOAA statement rebuking the Birmingham office, anyway.

The fourth conclusion of the report found that a NOAA employee deleted text messages relevant to the investigation, which might have violated federal records guidance. The inspector general’s memo did not name the employee; the separate NOAA scientific integrity investigation said it was Roberts, who now works at another Commerce Department agency.

The stakes involved in the NOAA investigations are high because they concern how free the agency is from political interference as the heart of what is expected to be an unusually active hurricane season approaches. This hurricane season will bring with it unprecedented challenges if any storm makes landfall, given the worsening coronavirus pandemic that is raging in several hurricane-prone states, including Florida and Texas.

If people view forecasts from NOAA’s National Hurricane Center as politically motivated, for example, they might be less likely to heed evacuation orders when a storm strikes.

The report is one of three investigations into the NOAA statement, including the scientific integrity review that NOAA concluded June 15. The inspector general’s inquiry is the only one that has involved high-level participation on the part of the Commerce Department; the agency had declined interview requests for the NOAA scientific integrity investigation and has not provided documents and interviews for an ongoing probe by the House Science Committee.

As The Washington Post has reported, the White House wanted NOAA to amend the record on the Hurricane Dorian forecast, and orders to NOAA were handed down through top aides of Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross.

The NOAA scientific integrity investigation faulted Jacobs and Roberts, the former NOAA deputy chief of staff and communications director, for violating codes of the agency’s scientific integrity policy through their involvement in the Sept. 6 statement. NOAA’s scientific integrity policy prohibits political interference with the conduct and communication of the agency’s scientific findings.

Trump has nominated Jacobs to a Senate-confirmed position to lead the government’s primary oceans and atmospheric science agency, and his nomination has cleared the Senate Commerce Committee. He also has nominated acting Commerce Department general counsel Michael Walsh to that position. Walsh has been referred to as a key player in the NOAA statement, according to FOIA releases and other materials.

These new findings could cloud the prospects of both Jacobs and Walsh on the Senate floor.

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