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.x
In addition to Florida - South Carolina, North Carolina, Georgia, and Alabama, will most likely be hit (much) harder than anticipated. Looking like one of the largest hurricanes ever. Already category 5. BE CAREFUL! GOD BLESS EVERYONE!— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) September 1, 2019
Exactly 20 minutes later, the Birmingham field office of the National Weather Service sent out a tweet of its own.x
Minutes later, the National Hurricane Center offered its own guidance.x
Here are the latest Key Messages on Hurricane #Dorian. Storm surge and hurricane watches have been issued for portions of the Florida east coast. The latest full advisory is available at https://t.co/tW4KeFW0gB pic.twitter.com/d6VjAX38lA— National Hurricane Center (@NHC_Atlantic) September 1, 2019
The Twitter universe swooped right in.x
Wayment... so Alabama is supposed to get hit hard by #Dorian? Who's giving the President his forecast?— kendis (@kendisgibson) September 1, 2019
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 He had, most likely basing his list of states on out-of-date, earlier forecasts, which did include Alabama, as recently as just two days' earlier, not because he wanted to spark a cat-5 hurricane panic for the fun of it.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(non) danger posed to Alabama during a FEMA briefing a couple hours later, implying that it was NWS Birmingham who had outdated information—without quite saying its name.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.x
....when in fact, under certain original scenarios, it was in fact correct that Alabama could have received some Ã¢Â€Âœhurt.Ã¢Â€Â Always good to be prepared! But the Fake News is only interested in demeaning and belittling. DidnÃ¢Â€Â™t play my whole sentence or statement. Bad people!— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) September 2, 2019
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.x
The black outlined area on this very outdated @NHC_Atlantic #Dorian graphic that Trump just used in his update was added and not a part of the official forecast. @WhiteHouse pic.twitter.com/XMQmepPyj6— Kait Parker (@WeatherKait) September 4, 2019
When a reporter commented on the modification, Trump didn’t deny it, ensuring that the absolutely ridiculous scandal would continue.x
A reporter just now asks about the map Trump showed in the Oval Office today, which looked like the president may have used a Sharpie to draw a circle to intersect Alabama. Trump ... doesn't say no."I don't know. I don't know. I don't know," he says.— Felicia Sonmez (@feliciasonmez) September 4, 2019
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.x
This was the originally projected path of the Hurricane in its early stages. As you can see, almost all models predicted it to go through Florida also hitting Georgia and Alabama. I accept the Fake News apologies! pic.twitter.com/0uCT0Qvyo6— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) September 4, 2019
The Florida map says that NOAA/NHC guidance “supersedes” all. Also: Trump altered THAT model!x
When people called him out once again for this outrageous behavior, Trump doubled down and tweeted out a long range forecast spaghetti model that appeared to show Alabama within the projected path. But he doctored it by changing the contrast and colors to enhance the outliers. pic.twitter.com/cNFMlrTNQQ— Eugene Gu, MD (@eugenegu) September 5, 2019
Unfazed, Trump just kept going.x
Alabama was going to be hit or grazed, and then Hurricane Dorian took a different path (up along the East Coast). The Fake News knows this very well. ThatÃ¢Â€Â™s why theyÃ¢Â€Â™re the Fake News!— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) September 5, 2019
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.x
Whoa! Nothing like throwing your "Alabama" NWS office under the bus. pic.twitter.com/Fx0oAdWlh7— Ryan Maue (@RyanMaue) September 6, 2019
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.x
I've been waiting 3 years to see if I could use #FOIA to get a candid look inside a govt agency that found itself in turmoil over something Trump tweeted. Never thought it would be NOAAhttps://t.co/8NkL0R2fSS— Jason Leopold (@JasonLeopold) February 1, 2020
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.