When the president bullies the weathermen
What is it they say? You don’t talk about politics or religion. Sports is usually a safe bet. Fishing, too. And most of the time, outside of “It’s not the heat, it’s the humidity,” the weather is usually a safe topic for polite discussion, but even that became politicized last week when President Donald Trump gave an incorrect forecast. The president claimed on Sept. 1 that Alabama would be hit harder than expected by Hurricane Dorian, but the National Weather Service’s Birmingham office quickly and immediately challenged this assertion. A directive sent to the entire agency hours after Trump’s statement apparently warned employees not to contradict him. This stance that the president shouldn’t be corrected when wrong, even when public safety is at stake, is dangerous and dictator-like.
The directive sent to National Weather Service personnel told employees to “only stick with official National Hurricane Center forecasts if questions arise from some national level social media posts which hit the news this afternoon.” They were also told not to “provide any opinion.”
Trump doubled down on his misconception that Dorian would hit Alabama on Sept. 4 when he showed a hurricane map from the Oval Office. The map was from an Aug. 29 model and had what appeared to be a semicircle drawn with black sharpie over Alabama to incorrectly show the hurricane’s projected path.
The National Weather Service sent another message after the president’s demonstration, warning meteorologists to not speak out about his false claims.
Not only did the government agency forbid its employees from contradicting Trump, but the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration even disavowed the Birmingham National Weather Service’s tweet that corrected the president.
“From Wednesday, August 28, through Monday, September 2, the information provided by NOAA and the National Hurricane Center to President Trump and the wider public demonstrated that the tropical-storm-force winds from Hurricane Dorian could impact Alabama,” an unnamed NOAA spokesperson said in a statement. The statement went on to scold the National Weather Service in Birmingham for speaking “in absolute terms that were inconsistent with probabilities from the best forecast products available at the time.”
Before Trump spoke about the hurricane’s projected path, he certainly should have checked to make sure that the data was up to date — not four days out of date — as the strength of hurricanes and their paths can change quickly. But the even bigger problem is the agency’s attempt to prevent its employees from correcting false information. The National Weather Service shouldn’t be concerned with the president’s ego or public image. It should be concerned with presenting the facts as they are. Alabama was safe from Dorian’s path, but it’s not difficult to imagine a situation in which Trump makes an incorrect statement about a national disaster that, without being corrected by the National Weather Service, could have serious consequences. This is a dangerous precedent for the agency to set.
If Trump was a reasonable president, an easy solution to his hurricane conundrum would be to apologize for his inaccuracies and issue a correction. But he isn’t that kind of president, and we have to live with the consequences of his big ego and consistently low level of accountability.