NOAA panel determines agency head violated ethics code in ‘Sharpiegate’ debacle

Last September, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's acting chief scientist announced that the agency would be conducting a probe of NOAA's apparent public buckling to Donald Trump on whether or not Hurricane Dorian was headed for the state of Alabama when all agency science demonstrated it was not. After Trump erroneously tweeted a claim that Alabama would be in the path of Dorian, you may recall that all hell broke loose when the National Weather Service told Alabama residents that no, they were not actually in danger, upon which Trump had a fit at being corrected and the administration threatened mass firings in the agency if they didn't back Trump on where Trump thought the hurricane was headed.

That verdict is now in. Perhaps unsurprisingly, a panel commissioned by the agency determined that acting NOAA Administrator Neil Jacobs and Deputy Chief of Staff Julie Roberts violated agency ethics "intentionally, knowingly, or in the reckless disregard" of the agency's Scientific Integrity Policy, according to the probe's final report. What's not clear is whether it will result in any significant changes whatsoever.

Trump's false Hurricane Dorian claim, which reached its public apex in an act of supreme White House gaslighting now known as Sharpiegate, was before the COVID-19 crisis, perhaps the most known public episodes of Trump's uncontrollable malignant narcissism turning into genuine public policy crisis. In a passing tweet on September 1, Trump gave an off-the-cuff warning to various states to "BE CAREFUL!" as Hurricane Dorian approached, erroneously including Alabama in the list of states that would be affected.

Trump was wrong about that, and Alabama's National Weather Service office tweeted a quick correction aimed at state residents, reassuring them the state was not in danger. It should and could have ended there, a minor gaffe by a public official that was quickly nullified, but Donald Trump is a genuine malignant narcissist, with symptoms so severe that they alter his very perceptions of reality, and he had an multi-day absolute raging meltdown over the correction that culminated, and this is true, in a decompensating Oval Office Trump displaying a posterboard-sized map of Dorian's once-projected progress on which Trump himself had drawn in new, obviously faked forecast lines encompassing Alabama with, yes, his own black marker.

Technically speaking, altering a federal government forecast map or warning in such a fashion is illegal, for the obvious reason that malevolent figures could use faked government warnings to defraud Americans or cause public panic, but it was only a small part of Trump's furious, extended insistence that a minor error on his part was not an error, and that it was the entire rest of the United States government that was wrong.

It quickly went farther still, with Donald Trump telling his White House staff that the Alabama office's correct tweet needed to be "corrected" to match his own views, an order carried out by then-Chief of Staff Mick Mulvaney, upon which Secretary of Commerce Wilbur Ross personally phoned acting NOAA administrator Jacobs with a threat to fire the entire political leadership team at NOAA if they did not "fix" their contradiction of Dear Leader, upon which NOAA released an unsigned, unattributed statement from "a spokesperson" disavowing the Alabama correction and claiming that office, not Donald Trump, was in the wrong.

It was an act of fraud by all involved, for no larger goal than placating a raging but delusional incompetent who insisted that harm be visited upon the scientists that he believed had attacked him by telling the public correct forecast information when he had tweeted an incorrect version. It was an act of overt authoritarian government, and the most egregious one, before only a few months later Trump would insist that a new worldwide pandemic would not arrive in the United States, would not kill Americans in large numbers, and did not need to be met with aggressive emergency preparations because he, the delusional babbling boob, simply said so.

NOAA leaders should have resigned, but bowed to the intense pressure of the near-satirically corrupt Trump team. NOAA's report on the matter now confirms that Jacobs and Roberts should have at the least refused to put the statement out as an official NOAA claim.

The recommendations of NOAA Assistant Administrator Stephen Volz revolve mainly around "clarifying" the ethics policies and formulating new agreements between NOAA and its supervising officials in the Department Commerce to, when possible, Not Be Corrupt—including the establishment of "a scientific integrity policy" covering "the career and political leadership at Commerce." We can safely assume Wilbur Ross will have absolutely no interest in Not Being Corrupt training, so those particular recommendations will likely go nowhere.

More troubling, however, is that the acting NOAA administrator is himself disputing the conclusions of the report. The Washington Post reports that Jacobs, in a statement, "applied an overly broad interpretation" and that NOAA was correct to issue the statement because "The intent was to reconcile the forecaster’s duty to convey information to the public with probabilistic numerical model guidance that was still showing a small, but non-zero, chance of impacts."

Translation: Agency heads are still very afraid, and rightly so, of what Trump and team will do to them if they do not toe whatever lines they are told to toe, and so we will be going with the premise that technically speaking it's not absolutely impossible that a hurricane could, say, make a quantum jump to land on top of Idaho so technically speaking Trump could warn whatever state he wanted to warn and it wouldn't be NOAA's place to correct him.

You cannot say that those fears are unfounded. The Trump team has now dived fully and wholly into corruption, freed by Republican nullification of impeachment charges to seek vengeance on every government watchdog and inspector that has dared to impede them in even the slightest way. It is a given that Wilbur Ross, Donald Trump, and the newest Trump chief of staff Mark Meadows would have absolutely no qualms about removing Jacobs or other officials even now, if they dared question Trump's now Sharpie-backed insistence that hurricanes go wherever Donald Trump says they will go.

‘HELP!!!’ Internal emails reveal panicked weather agencies during ‘crazy’ SharpieGate crisis

Over 1,000 emails dropped Friday reveal the multi-agency upheaval that followed one of the stranger moments in recent Trump history: SharpieGate. Remember SharpieGate? It feels like a lifetime ago, but it was actually just five months ago that Donald Trump altered a National Weather Service map with a marker, rather than concede that he’d incorrectly named the states in path of a hurricane, sparking unnecessary fear.

Let’s back up a moment and do a quick recap of SharpieGate before we dig into the emails. Like so much of Trump’s nonsense, it all starts with a tweet. 

On the morning of Sept. 1, 2019, Hurricane Dorian hit the Bahamas hard as a Category 5, with 185mph winds; at least 70 people died. Trump took to Twitter to fire out conversational, somewhat presidential blessings and caution towards those on the mainland who might be in harm’s way.


Exactly 20 minutes later, the Birmingham field office of the National Weather Service sent out a tweet of its own.


Minutes later, the National Hurricane Center offered its own guidance.


The Twitter universe swooped right in.


Did Trump screw up? He had, most likely basing his list of states on out-of-date, earlier forecasts, which did include Alabama, as recently as just two days' earlier, not because he wanted to spark a cat-5 hurricane panic for the fun of it. It was one of the rare situations where most Americans would forgive the man for his error … if he’d just admitted he’d made a mistake.

Instead, Trump doubled down on the (non) danger posed to Alabama during a FEMA briefing a couple hours later, implying that it was NWS Birmingham who had outdated information—without quite saying its name. “(I)t may get a little piece of a great place: It’s called Alabama.  And Alabama could even be in for at least some very strong winds and something more than that, it could be.  This just came up, unfortunately,” Trump said, according to the White House’s official transcript.

Later on Sunday, on the South Lawn, Trump included Alabama again. “We don’t know where it’s going to hit, seems to be going to Florida, now it should be going to Georgia, the Carolinas,” he said. “Alabama to get a bit of a beat down. You’ll be learning more probably over the course of the next 24 hours.”

By early the next morning, Trump was lashing out at the media for reporting on his error, calling journalists “bad people” in a two-part tweet aimed at ABC News’ Jon Karl. What a way kickoff Labor Day.


Yet even then, this strange saga wasn’t yet known as SharpieGate. It didn’t get REALLY weird until Wed., Sept. 4, when Trump, while speaking to reporters in the Oval Office, presented a poster-sized image of NWS guidance as “proof” that Alabama was in Dorian’s path and thus he was perfect and right and right and perfect.

There was just one problem.


When a reporter commented on the modification, Trump didn’t deny it, ensuring that the absolutely ridiculous scandal would continue. 


And so #SharpieGate began. After just a few hours, Trump continued to refuse to admit he was wrong, and used an even more outdated map than the one he drew on. This one was an Aug. 29 “spaghetti” model from a Florida water management agency.


The Florida map says that NOAA/NHC guidance “supersedes” all. Also: Trump altered THAT model!


Unfazed, Trump just kept going.


On Friday, almost a week into the fiasco, NOAA finally spoke; it tossed NWS Birmingham right into the eye of the hurricane with an unattributed statement. 


SharpieGate didn’t end there, of course. The NOAA statement sparked rage throughout the weather science community, and soon The New York Times was reporting that Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross was the driving force behind the horrible statement. The chief of NOAA denied it on Sept. 11, and most people didn’t believe him, but for the most part, both Trump and the weather scientists got their way: The SharpieGate scandal fell off the news cycle, and the whistleblower complaint took its place. 

It seems fitting somehow that, just as the impeachment of Donald Trump is coming to its end, SharpieGate is back in the headlines.

Again, this never needed to be a thing. Trump, or one of his spineless minions, could have just said “Whoops, this was based on bad data” and moved on. Instead, He Who Is Never Right had to be right; when NWS Birmingham sent out the correct information, Trump took it as a slight, hearing his name where it hadn’t been called. I read a bit more than half of the email cache, and the Birmingham office’s chief meteorologist maintains that his “day shift” had no idea about Trump’s tweet until about 10 minutes after they sent out their own. The chief, Chris Darden, was forced to insist that his team wasn’t tweeting in “’direct’ response to the POTUS.” Only in this presidency would such a “direct” tweet be considered a bad thing! The NOAA didn’t necessarily cover things perfectly—staff were ordered early on Day One of SharpieGate to “not provide any opinion” and direct all queries to the agency’s Public Affairs department. The edict was sent out again after Trump showed off his poster on Sept. 4, and again the next day. The email trove also shows how unprepared a bunch of weather PR people—some of whom were also scientists—were for their time in the center ring of a Trump circus. The NWS Director of Public Affairs, Susan Buchanan, challenges Social Media Lead Corey Pieper when he warns her about Trump’s special map: “Are you sure they were doctored?” (“Yes,” he writes back.)

“HELP!!!” is all Dennis Feltgen, a meteorologist and communications officer, offers as commentary on a forwarded media request from ABC News after Trump showed off his altered weather map. “I pray this thing dies off by morning,” writes Deputy Chief of Staff Julie Roberts just a couple hours later. The next morning, a Deputy Undersecretary, Benjamin Friedman, calls the doctoring of the map “crazy.”  More telling? The anger at the NOAA statement that undermined NWS Birmingham. “You are not going to believe this BULL,” NOAA official Maureen O’Leary writes to a colleague on vacation, attributing the anonymous statement to Roberts. “I hope you are having a great trip.”

The outrage over the NOAA statement, which was loud in public, was just as hot internally. “Please address this crisis in moral leadership our agency is facing,” wrote a Seattle-based senior biologist to NWS Director Neil Jacobs, gaining the attention of retired Navy Rear Admiral and Deputy NOAA Administrator Tim Gallaudet, who said he and Jacobs “did not approve or support” the NOAA statement.  BuzzFeed’s self-declared “FOIA Terrorist,” investigative reporter Jason Leopold, has been updating this thread with new gems as he and his team make their way through the cache.  


Go ahead and dig in to see just how many people scrambled to protect Donald Trump’s ego after they correctly reported hurricane projections. That Trump expects to have his own errors handled in such a way is no surprise in light of the impeachment case presented by the House Managers in recent weeks. It’s just that much more disturbing.