Trump Tried to Bully NOAA. Its Chief Scientist Just Released a Remarkable Letter to Fight Back.

“There was a complex issue involving the President commenting on the path of the hurricane.”

Evan Vucci/AP

NOAA Acting Chief Scientist Craig McLean sent a letter over the weekend to the agency’s staff to address the controversy that ensued after President Donald Trump falsely claimed that Hurricane Dorian was headed for Alabama. On Tuesday, NOAA publicly released that letter, following a wild week when the normally understated agency was in the spotlight.

The controversy began with several days of tweets by Trump insisting that his prediction about Dorian and Alabama was correct.

On Friday afternoon, NOAA had put out an unsigned statement backing Trump and admonishing the Birmingham office, writing that the “Birmingham National Weather Service’s Sunday morning tweet spoke in absolute terms that were inconsistent with probabilities from the best forecast products available at the time.”

This statement was widely viewed as politicizing the weather. Then on Monday, the director of NOAA’s National Weather Service, Louis Uccellini, led a standing ovation for the forecasters in the Birmingham, Alabama, office who corrected Trump’s false assertion that Alabama was in Dorian’s path. NOAA is part of the Department of Commerce, and on the same day, the New York Times reported that Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross “threatened to fire top employees at the federal scientific agency responsible for weather forecasts last Friday after the agency’s Birmingham office contradicted President Trump’s claim that Hurricane Dorian might hit Alabama.”

This conflict culminated in a letter McLean sent to NOAA staff promising an investigation into why the agency released that statement supporting Trump’s false warnings for Alabama. That now-public letter reads:

During the course of the storm, as I am sure you are aware, there were routine and exceptional expert forecasts, the best possible, issued by the NWS Forecasters…As I’m sure you also know, there was a complex issue involving the President commenting on the path of the hurricane. The NWS Forecaster(s) corrected any public misunderstanding in an expert and timely way, as they should. There followed, last Friday, an unsigned press release from “NOAA” that inappropriately and incorrectly contradicted the NWS forecaster. My understanding is that this intervention to contradict the forecaster was not based on science but on external factors including reputation and appearance, or simply put, political.

McLean goes on to explain that he will investigate whether the NOAA press release was a violation of the agency’s policy on scientific integrity:

Unfortunately, the press release of last Friday violated this trust and violated NOAA’s policies of scientific integrity. In my role as Assistant Administrator for Research, and as I continue to administratively serve as Acting Chief Scientist, I am pursuing the potential violations of our NOAA Administrative Order on Scientific Integrity…I have a responsibility to pursue these truths. I will.

There have been no reactions from the White House or the office of Commerce Secretary Ross to the letter. 

More MotherJones reporting on Climate Desk

MORE HARD-HITTING JOURNALISM

In 2014, before Donald Trump announced his run for president, we knew we had to do something different to address the fundamental challenge facing journalism: how hard-hitting reporting that can hold the powerful accountable can survive as the bottom falls out of the news business.

Being a nonprofit, we started planning The Moment for Mother Jones, a special campaign to raise $25 million for key investments to make Mother Jones the strongest watchdog it can be. Five years later, readers have stepped up and contributed an astonishing $23 million in gifts and future pledges. This is an incredible statement from the Mother Jones community in the face of huge threats—both economic and political—against the free press.

Read more about The Moment and see what we've been able to accomplish thanks to readers' incredible generosity so far, and please join them today. Your gift will be matched dollar for dollar, up to $500,000 total, during this critical moment for journalism.

We Recommend

Latest

Sign up for our newsletters

Subscribe and we'll send Mother Jones straight to your inbox.

Get our award-winning magazine

Save big on a full year of investigations, ideas, and insights.

Subscribe

Support our journalism

Help Mother Jones' reporters dig deep with a tax-deductible donation.

Donate

We have a new comment system! We are now using Coral, from Vox Media, for comments on all new articles. We'd love your feedback.