Call for US commerce secretary to resign over hurricane-forecasting controversy

Wilbur Ross denies threating to fire staff at federal agency unless they sided with Trump’s false claim that Alabama was at risk from Dorian

In a photograph taken on September 4th, 2019, President Donald Trump holds an altered weather map of the probable path of Dorian. Photograph: JIM WATSON/AFP/Getty Images

In a photograph taken on September 4th, 2019, President Donald Trump holds an altered weather map of the probable path of Dorian. Photograph: JIM WATSON/AFP/Getty Images

 

US secretary of commerce Wilbur Ross is facing calls for his resignation after he reportedly threatened to fire senior staff at a federal agency unless they sided publicly with Donald Trump in a dispute over the path of Hurricane Dorian.

The New York Times, citing three anonymous officials, reported Mr Ross had called Neil Jacobs, the acting administrator of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (Noaa), last Friday and warned that heads would roll unless the agency’s disagreement with the US president over the path of Hurricane Dorian – dubbed “Sharpiegate” – was smoothed over.

Earlier in the week, the agency’s Birmingham, Alabama, office incurred the president’s wrath by publicly repudiating his false claim that Alabama was at risk from a devastating hurricane. By that point Alabama lay outside the storm’s likely trajectory.

In a desperate effort to bolster Mr Trump’s inaccurate statement, a map of the hurricane’s “cone of uncertainty” was presented in the Oval Office that had been altered by Sharpie pen to extend the area of danger over a corner of Alabama.

Hours after Mr Ross’s intervention, the Noaa put out an extraordinary official statement that sided with Mr Trump and admonished its own Birmingham office.

The news a cabinet member in the Trump administration had threatened to fire politically appointed staff at the agency to force the Noaa to contradict the advice of its own scientists prompted immediate condemnation.

The head of the environmental group the Sierra Club, Michael Brune, called on Mr Ross to resign to “maintain the dignity of the federal government”.

Mr Brune called the intervention a “shameless abuse of power” that could have “devastating results now and in the future”.

Democratic congress members Don Beyer from Virginia and Paul Tonko from New York also called on Mr Ross to step down.

An investigation was opened on Sunday by the Noaa’s acting chief scientist, Craig McLean. He sent an email to colleagues announcing he was looking into how the agency had come to disavow its own experts in backing Mr Trump’s inaccurate claim.

The email, obtained by the Washington Post, called the agency’s response “political” and a “danger to public health and safety”.

The commerce secretary has denied that he threatened to fire staff. A statement made to the Hill called the New York Times story false and said: “Secretary Ross did not threaten to fire any Noaa staff over forecasting and public statements about Hurricane Dorian.”

But the denial did little to quell the anxiety of top scientists at the Noaa who are dismayed that scientific findings made at the height of a severe public emergency should have been overridden in order to spare Mr Trump’s blushes.

On Monday the director of the National Weather Service, Louis Uccellini, praised the agency’s forecasters in Birmingham for having rebuffed Mr Trump’s false tweet in an effort to avoid public panic.

“They did that with one thing in mind: public safety,” Mr Uccellini told a meeting of the National Weather Association. – Guardian