KAILUA-KONA — In the wake of a controversy surrounding President Donald Trump and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, U.S. Sen. Mazie Hirono drafted and signed a letter Wednesday with 13 other senators asking for answers from the Department of Commerce.
The letter from the Hawaii senator, addressed to Department of Commerce general inspector Peggy Gustafson, references President Trump’s comments last week about Hurricane Dorian’s projected path, and the claims that Department of Commerce officials threatened to fire NOAA employees for contradicting the president’s claims.
Gustafson opened an investigation into the allegations that agency-wide directives were issued warning NOAA staff against contradicting President Trump.
“Scientists within the federal government work for the American people, not for private industry or the President’s personal vanity,” the letter states. “Individuals and families across the country rely on weather forecasting to determine everything from what they wear each day to the decision to evacuate a home during extreme weather events. As deadly extreme weather becomes more and more common, maintaining public trust in these reports becomes increasingly important. Agency officials should not be sacrificing trustworthy weather reporting for political gain.”
The letter requests Gustafson to seek information about whether Department of Commerce officials suppressed or altered scientific products and communication and if department officials were pressured or explicitly directed by the White House to take those actions.
It also requests that Gustafson look into the legality of the actions by the officials and whether the department officials made political decisions that may have “impacted NOAA’s ability to fulfill its mission to understand and predict changes in climate, weather, oceans, and coasts, to share that knowledge and information with others, and to conserve and manage coastal and marine ecosystems and resources.”
On Sept. 1, President Trump sent out a message on Twitter that Alabama was among the states in the southern U.S. who were in the path of Hurricane Dorian.
Later that day, the Birmingham, Alabama, office of the National Weather Service sent out a Tweet stating: “Alabama will NOT see any impacts from #Dorian. We repeat, no impacts from Hurricane #Dorian will be felt across Alabama. The system will remain too far east. #alwx.”
Trump then displayed a modified version of a map from NOAA showing Hurricane Dorian’s path in the Oval Office at the White House on Sept. 4, with the hurricane shown as hitting Alabama, along with Florida and Georgia. The modified path was made with a Sharpie permanent marker. The map made waves on Twitter with the hashtag #sharpiegate.
When a reporter asked the president whether that outline of was made with a Sharpie, the president replied, “I don’t know. I don’t know,” according to a Newsweek article about the meeting.
On Sept. 6, NOAA published a statement from an unidentified spokesperson in support of Trump’s initial claim of the hurricane’s path. The New York Times reported a few days later that Department of Commerce secretary Wilbur Ross had told NOAA administrator Neil Jacobs that if the department did not undo the contradiction of Trump’s claims, top officials at NOAA would be fired, which prompted the Democrats letter calling for an investigation.
The 13 other U.S. senators that signed the letter to Gustafson are Tammy Baldwin (D-Wis.), Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.), Tammy Duckworth (D-Ill.), Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), Maggie Hassan (D-NH.), Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.), Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.), Ed Markey (D-Mass.), Bernard Sanders (D-Vt.), Mark Warner (D-Va.), Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.), Sheldon Whitehouse (D-RI.) and Ron Wyden (D-Ore.).
The Honolulu office of the National Weather Service, which coordinates storm warnings for the islands, declined to comment on Sen. Hirono’s letter or the claims under investigation.