WASHINGTON — President Trump, seeking to justify his claim of a hurricane threat to Alabama, pressed aides to intervene with a federal scientific agency, leading to a highly unusual public rebuke of the forecasters who contradicted him, according to people familiar with the events.
In response to the president’s request, Mick Mulvaney, the acting White House chief of staff, told Wilbur Ross, the commerce secretary, to have the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration publicly correct the forecasters, who had insisted that Alabama was not actually at risk from Hurricane Dorian.
A senior administration official, who asked not to be identified discussing internal matters, said Mr. Trump told his staff to have NOAA “clarify” the forecasters’ position. NOAA, which is part of the Commerce Department, then issued an unsigned statement saying the Birmingham, Ala., office of the National Weather Service was wrong to refute the president’s warning so categorically.
But the statement only intensified the uproar over Mr. Trump’s storm prediction as critics accused his administration of politicizing the weather. The Commerce Department inspector general has opened an investigation, and on Wednesday, a Democrat-controlled House science committee kicked off its own inquiry.
As a result, the furor over Mr. Trump’s storm prediction has evolved from a momentary embarrassment into a sustained political liability for the administration — no longer just a question of a president unwilling to admit a mistake but now a White House seemingly willing to pressure scientists to validate it.
The New York Times reported this week that Mr. Ross warned NOAA’s acting administrator that top employees at the agency could be fired if the situation were not addressed. Mr. Ross’s spokesman has denied that he threatened to fire anyone. A senior official on Wednesday said that if Mr. Ross did make such threats, it was not at the direction of Mr. Mulvaney.
After The Times disclosed Mr. Mulvaney’s role on Wednesday, The Washington Post reported that he was acting at Mr. Trump’s direction, which the senior official confirmed to The Times. But when Mr. Trump was asked by a reporter if he told his chief of staff to instruct NOAA to “disavow those forecasters,” he denied it.
“No, I never did that,” Mr. Trump said. “I never did that. That’s a whole hoax by the fake news media. When they talk about the hurricane and when they talk about Florida and they talk about Alabama, that’s just fake news. It was — right from the beginning, it was a fake story.”
The White House had no comment beyond the president’s remarks. The senior official made a distinction between telling NOAA to “disavow” the forecast and to “clarify” it. The White House argument was that the forecasters had gone too far and that the president was right to suggest there had been models showing a possible impact on Alabama.
The release of the NOAA statement provoked complaints that the Trump administration was improperly intruding in the professional weather forecasting system to rationalize an inaccurate presidential assertion. In opening its investigation, the Commerce Department’s inspector general said the events could call into question scientific independence.
The House Committee on Science, Space and Technology expressed similar concerns as it announced its own investigation into Mr. Ross’s actions on Wednesday.
“We are deeply disturbed by the politicization of NOAA’s weather forecast activities for the purpose of supporting incorrect statements by the president,” wrote Representative Eddie Bernice Johnson, the chairwoman of the committee, along with Representative Mikie Sherrill, the chairman of its oversight panel.
The latest challenge to Mr. Trump’s credibility has its origins in one of the more prosaic duties a president has: warning the nation when natural disasters like Hurricane Dorian threaten communities.
On Sept. 1, as Dorian gathered strength over the Atlantic and headed toward the East Coast, the president wrote on Twitter that Alabama, among other states, “will most likely be hit (much) harder than anticipated.” Earlier forecast maps had suggested that Alabama might see some effects from the edge of the storm, but by the time of the president’s tweet, the predictions had already changed.
A few minutes after Mr. Trump’s tweet, the National Weather Service in Birmingham posted its own message on Twitter flatly declaring that “Alabama will NOT see any impacts from #Dorian. We repeat, no impacts from Hurricane #Dorian will be felt across Alabama.” The forecasters were correct; Alabama was not struck by the hurricane.
Nonetheless, Mr. Trump was furious at being challenged and kept insisting for days that he had been right. He displayed or posted outdated maps, including one that had been apparently altered with a Sharpie pen to make it look like Alabama might still be in the path of the storm. He had his homeland security adviser release a statement backing him up.
After Mr. Trump told his staff on Sept. 5 to address the matter, Mr. Mulvaney called Mr. Ross, who was in Greece traveling for meetings. Mr. Ross then called Neil Jacobs, the acting administrator of NOAA, at home around 3 a.m. Friday, Washington time, and instructed him to clear up the agency’s contradiction of the president, according to three people informed about the discussions.
Dr. Jacobs objected to the demand and was told that the political appointees at NOAA would be fired if the situation were not fixed, according to the three individuals, who requested anonymity because they were not authorized to discuss the episode. The political staff at an agency typically includes a handful of top officials, such as Dr. Jacobs, and their aides. They are appointed by the administration currently in power, as opposed to career government employees, who remain as administrations come and go.
The statement NOAA ultimately issued later on Friday faulted the Birmingham office for a tweet that “spoke in absolute terms that were inconsistent with probabilities from the best forecast products available at the time.”
Dr. Jacobs has since sought to reassure his work force and the broader scientific community concerned about political interference.
“This administration is committed to the important mission of weather forecasting,” Dr. Jacobs said at a weather conference on Tuesday in Huntsville, Ala. “There is no pressure to change the way you communicate or forecast risk in the future.”
In the speech, Dr. Jacobs praised Mr. Trump, calling him “genuinely interested in improving weather forecasts,” and echoed the president’s position that Dorian initially threatened Alabama. “At one point, Alabama was in the mix, as was the rest of the Southeast.”
He also said he still had faith in the Birmingham office. “The purpose of the NOAA statement was to clarify the technical aspects of the potential impacts of Dorian,” Dr. Jacobs said. “What it did not say, however, is that we understand and fully support the good intent of the Birmingham weather forecast office, which was to calm fears in support of public safety.”
Unassuaged, the House science panel has demanded documents and information related to the NOAA statement and its origins.
In addition to emails, memos, texts and records of telephone calls, the committee asked Mr. Ross to answer a number of questions, including whether any representative of the Executive Office of the President directed NOAA to issue Friday’s statement or specify the language in it.
Committee members also reminded Mr. Ross of statements that he made under oath in his confirmation hearing that he would not interfere with science, particularly at NOAA, which in addition to weather forecasting is the agency responsible for understanding and predicting changes in the earth’s climate.
“Science should be done by scientists,” Mr. Ross testified in that January 2017 hearing. “I support the release of factual scientific data.”