WASHINGTON — President Trump directed his staff to order the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration to prepare a statement that Hurricane Dorian posed a significant threat to Alabama as of Sept. 1, in contrast to what the agency’s forecasters were predicting at the time.
Trump instructed acting chief of staff Mick Mulvaney to direct NOAA’s leaders to issue a statement buttressing his contention, according to a senior official who spoke on the condition of anonymity due to the sensitive nature of the matter.
Mulvaney then relayed the message to Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross, this official said, who in turn instructed NOAA officials to put out a statement Friday to that effect.
Trump told reporters he made no such instructions to Mulvaney on Wednesday afternoon.
Democrats on the House Science Committee are launching an investigation into the Commerce Department’s involvement in NOAA’s unusual decision.
Chairwoman Eddie Bernice Johnson, Democrat of Texas, and Oversight and Investigations Chairwoman Mikie Sherrill, Democrat of New Jersey, sent a letter to Ross requesting information related to the department’s dealings with NOAA regarding Hurricane Dorian.
The committee, which has jurisdiction over NOAA, is requesting a briefing with Commerce Department staff who may have been involved in issuing instructions to NOAA that led to several directives issued to National Weather Service staff and culminated in the Sept. 6 unsigned statement, which disavowed a tweet sent by the agency’s Birmingham Weather Service forecast office on Sept. 1. That tweet definitively stated that Alabama would not see any impacts from Dorian, and came in response to a flood of phone calls to the office from worried residents.
After sending the tweet, Weather Service staff learned the calls originated from a tweet from Trump that falsely asserted the state ‘‘would most likely be hit (much) harder than anticipated’’ by the powerful hurricane.
The NOAA statement on Sept. 6 admonished the Birmingham division for speaking ‘‘in absolute terms’’ when it tweeted Alabama would ‘‘NOT see any impacts from #Dorian.’’
The NOAA statement resulted in part from pressure that Ross brought to bear on Neil Jacobs, the acting head of NOAA, in an early morning phone call on Friday from Greece, where the secretary was traveling for meetings, according to three individuals familiar with the matter who requested anonymity to speak on a sensitive issue.
‘‘We are deeply disturbed by the politicization of NOAA’s weather forecast activities for the purpose of supporting incorrect statements by the president,’’ Johnson and Sherrill wrote to Ross. The House members are seeking answers to who ordered and helped draft the Sept. 6 statement, and whether Commerce Department or White House staff members were involved in threatening NOAA leadership in order to secure the statement.
‘‘We are committed to supporting the activities of the NWS and its dedicated staff. During your Senate confirmation hearing, you committed to allowing federal scientists to ‘‘be free to communicate data clearly and concisely’’ and that you would ‘‘not interfere with the release of factual scientific data,’’ they wrote to Ross.
They noted that, based on press reports, it appears Ross violated the ‘‘values of scientific integrity.’’
The House Science Committee is requesting all records of communication between Commerce Department officials, NOAA, and the White House between Sept. 1 and Sept. 9 pertaining to the president’s tweet and NOAA’s Sept. 6 statement.
The committee wants to hear from three Commerce Department officials in particular by Sept. 30: NOAA deputy chief of staff Julie Kay Roberts, Commerce Department chief of staff Michael Walsh Jr., and Commerce Department director of policy Earl Comstock.
In reality, at the time Trump sent the Sept. 1 tweet, the only hurricane forecast product that was showing potential impacts in Alabama at the time of the president’s tweet was the probability of seeing tropical storm force winds, and even that only showed about a 5 percent chance of such conditions in a small portion of the state. The official track forecast at the time of his tweet showed the storm moving up the Southeast coast, away from Alabama.
In addition to the Science Committee’s investigation, other groups are initiating probes into NOAA’s decision to back Trump’s claim that Alabama was at risk from Dorian despite contrary forecasts from its own scientists. These include the Department of Commerce’s Inspector General and NOAA’s acting chief scientist.