Democratic lawmakers are ramping up requests for investigations into why officials at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) reprimanded their own scientists for contradicting President Trump’s tweet on Hurricane Dorian.
Four Democratic lawmakers are now calling for probes into reports that the White House played a hand in reprimanding NOAA staff at the agency’s Birmingham, Ala., office for tweeting that Alabama would not be affected by the hurricane. That kind of involvement would be seen as a politicization of science.
On Wednesday, the House Committee on Science, Space and Technology launched a congressional inquiry into the circumstances that led NOAA to issue an unsigned statement last week that appeared to rebuke its own scientists who contradicted Trump’s claims about Dorian’s path.
Committee Chairwoman Eddie Bernice Johnson (D-Texas) and Investigations and Oversight Subcommittee Chairwoman Mikie Sherrill (D-N.J.) sent a letter to Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross on Wednesday, requesting a briefing from him and asking for details surrounding publication of last week’s statement.
“It appears that in an attempt to support President Donald Trump’s incorrect tweet asserting that Alabama would be ‘hit (much) harder than anticipated’ by Hurricane Dorian, Commerce officials may have taken a number of steps to pressure NOAA into supporting the President’s assertions,” the lawmakers wrote in their letter to Ross.
A spokesman for the Commerce Department, which oversees NOAA, confirmed to The Hill that the agency received and is reviewing the letter from Johnson and Sherrill.
Trump on Sept. 1 said Dorian had the potential to hit Alabama, contradicting official weather data at the time. Officials at the National Weather Service in Birmingham tweeted that same day that state residents were not at risk.
On Sept. 6, NOAA issued the unsigned statement, calling the Birmingham tweet “inconsistent with probabilities from the best forecast products available at the time.”
Hurricane Dorian did not hit Alabama after making landfall on the East Coast.
The New York Times on Tuesday reported that Ross requested the statement. At least 10 lawmakers have since called for Ross to resign.
A spokesperson for the Commerce Department denied the reporting by the Times.
Johnson and Sherrill questioned in their letter whether Ross had broken promises he made during his confirmation hearing to allow the freedom of science.
“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,’ ” the lawmakers wrote. “However, actions by you that were described in the New York Times article would, if accurate, be inconsistent with the values of scientific integrity.”
Trump later called it a “fake story.”
Rep. Paul Tonko (D-N.Y.), chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Committee’s Environment and Climate Change Subcommittee, separately requested NOAA’s Scientific Integrity office to investigate the Trump administration’s involvement in the NOAA statement. In a letter sent Tuesday night, he called for a probe to determine whether agency officials violated NOAA’s scientific integrity order.
“As one of America’s foremost scientific agencies responsible for supporting public safety, NOAA’s policy of upholding scientific integrity standards is one of the most important in our federal government. The reported abuses by high ranking political appointees, in contravention of agency convention and best practices, appear to violate the NOAA Administrative Order on Scientific Integrity,” Tonko wrote.
His request would complement an investigation undertaken by NOAA’s acting chief scientist, Craig McLean, who announced Sunday that he was opening a probe into the statement.
“There followed, last Friday, an unsigned press release from ‘NOAA’ that inappropriately and incorrectly contradicted the NWS forecaster,” McLean said Sunday. “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.”
Tonko said his investigation will ensure McLean’s findings are made public.
Sen. Jeanne Shaheen (D-N.H.) was the first lawmaker to publicly call for an investigation, sending a letter to the Commerce Department’s Office of the Inspector General on Monday asking them to look into the circumstances surrounding the NOAA statement.
The inspector general’s office confirmed it has opened an investigation. A Sept. 7 letter sent by the inspector general to Neil Jacobs, the acting under secretary of Commerce for oceans and atmosphere, requested all communications regarding the statement.
“Recent reports of inconsistent messaging culminating in an unattributed press release surrounding information related to Hurricane Dorian call into question the NWS’s processes, scientific independence, and ability to communicate accurate and timely weather warnings and data to the nation in times of national emergency,” the agency wrote.