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New York Times: Wilbur Ross and the Trump War on Truth

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Washington, September 10, 2019 | comments
Wilbur Ross and the Trump War on Truth

BY THE EDITORIAL BOARD - 09/10/2019

After a quiet couple of months, Wilbur Ross, the secretary of commerce, appears set on distinguishing himself again as the most compromised member of an administration that at times seems defined by ethical and moral flexibility.

On Monday, The Times reported that Mr. Ross threatened last week to fire officials at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, not for doing their job poorly but for doing it well. The secretary was displeased that forecasters at the National Weather Service, which is overseen by NOAA, had contradicted President Trump’s incorrect warning that Hurricane Dorian was on track to hit Alabama. The threat was an abuse of authority aimed at misleading the public to provide cover for the president.

For those not following the Hurricane Dorian controversy: On Sept. 1, Mr. Trump tweeted a warning to residents of several states, including Alabama, that they would “most likely be hit (much) harder than anticipated” by the storm. A few minutes later, responding to inquiries from concerned Alabamians, the Birmingham office of the National Weather Service issued a tweetclarifying that the state would “NOT see any impacts from Dorian.”

Government scientists attempting to stem the spread of bad information about a natural disaster should be seen as fulfilling their duty. A White House official suggested the correction was an attempt to show up the president. Mr. Trump then spent the next several days scrambling to prove he had been right, an increasingly embarrassing spectacle best captured by a media briefing on Sept. 4, at which he displayed a map that appeared to have been doctored with a Sharpie to show a sliver of Alabama in the storm’s path. As the mockery grew louder, the White House decided to get serious.

 

Cue Mr. Ross, who, multiple sources told The Times, interrupted his work travels in Greece last Friday to order top officials at NOAA, which is part of the Commerce Department, to find a way to remedy the impression that the agency had contradicted the president. When NOAA’s acting administrator, Neil Jacobs, objected, Mr. Ross threatened to fire the agency’s top managers.

A few hours later, NOAA issued an unsigned statement scolding the Birmingham office and insisting that the president was right all along. Problem solved.

Except it wasn’t. Outraged by the political meddling, current and former NOAA officials, along with outside meteorologists, began objecting. At an industry conference on Monday, the director of the National Weather Service, Louis Uccellini, praised the Birmingham office for “upholding the integrity of the forecasting process.” NOAA’s acting chief scientist, Craig McLean, has opened an investigation into whether the agency’s scientific integrity policy was compromised. Three former NOAA administrators cheered his decision in a Washington Post op-ed on Monday. “Even a hint that a forecast or warning was influenced by politics would undermine the public’s trust and the ability to respond quickly and effectively under potentially life-threatening conditions,” they wrote. “Weather forecasting should never be political.”

Putting politics ahead of sound science has proved to be standard operating procedure for this president. From the health risks of coal mining to the national security risks of climate change, Mr. Trump is hostile to any research that does not comport with his political interests — or view of reality. His administration has time and again suppressed and censored data that it finds inconvenient, prompting government scientists to lodge complaints or resign in protest. Studies have been derailed, scientists reassigned and advisory panels disbanded.

Mr. Trump is waging a war on facts, and he expects his aides to fight fiercely on his behalf, even when this requires misleading the public.

 

Mr. Ross has previously exhibited a willingness to deceive the American people and Congress to advance the president’s political aims. Mr. Ross, who oversees the Census Bureau, was a key player in Mr. Trump’s quest to add a citizenship question to the 2020 census. Critics feared the move was a partisan power grab that would result in an undercount of residents in areas with large immigrant populations. Documents presented during the resulting court fight supported these concerns. Mr. Ross repeatedly claimed, including in his testimony before Congress in March 2018, that the question had been added solely at the behest of the Department of Justice with an eye toward protecting the voting rights of minorities. This rationale was so transparently absurd that the Supreme Court ruled against allowing the question until the administration could come up with a less laughable excuse.

The White House has denied that Mr. Ross threatened to fire anyone at NOAA, but the controversy promises to roll on. Representative Don Beyer, a Democrat from Virginia, has called for the secretary to resign, declaring his “direct attacks on the scientists and federal employees” to be “an embarrassing new low for a member of this Cabinet which has been historically venal and incompetent.”

Loyalty is a valuable trait in an employee. But members of the Trump administration seem to have forgotten that they work for — and their loyalty lies with — the American people. They are charged with serving the public interest, not the president’s ego.

 
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