June 22, 2020

The Real Victim of Trump’s Sharpiegate: NOAA Administrator Neil Jacobs

There are few things worse than doing something unethical or wrong and then allowing another person to take the blame for the transgression.  Even worse is when victim is portrayed as the offender and then attacked by the very folks that should be supporting the victim.

This kind of unfortunate activity was done by President Trump and some of his staff in the Office of the President, aided by high level political appointees in the Department of Commerce.

The victim?    Acting NOAA administrator Dr. Neil Jacobs.

The scapegoat

The transgression?  Sharpiegate

This has all come to a head recently, with recent reports by the NOAA Integrity Officer and NAPA (the National Academy for Public Administration) and articles in both the NY Times and the Washington Post.

A Brief Review of Sharpiegate

The incident began with Trump's tweet on Sept. 1, 2019 in which he suggested that South Carolina, North Carolina, Georgia and Alabama would be hit much harder than expected by Hurricane Dorian.  Trump was correct about the Carolinas but wrong about Alabama -- with the updated forecast track a sharply reduced threat to Alabama.

Within 20 minutes of Trump's tweet, the Birmingham Alabama NWS responded:

Those NWS folks made a blanket statement that Dorian would have no impact on Alabama, which was too strong since the updated forecasts on Sunday morning had a small probability (5-10%) of tropical storm winds reaching Alabama. Furthermore, as the storm passed there WERE modest impacts on Alabama, with winds gusting to around 25 mph.  And sinking air forced by the storm resulted in several daily temperature records being broken in Alabama. 

Now, you would think that this was a really small story, with Trump making a small error in one his tweets.  Who would ever depend on Trump’s tweets for an important weather forecast?  But in this hyper-partisan world, many media sources pushed stories making fun of Trump, describing how he was undermining weather prediction (see CNN headline below).

It is clear that the President was uninformed about hurricanes and he made a mistake on the Alabama threat.  But the media went into hyper mocking mode and tried to score some points on him...and this President doesn't like to be mocked and became defensive.  In the end, one person was going to pay the price for it:  acting NOAA administrator Neil Jacobs


The next stage of this sad drama occurred the next Wednesday when President Trump talked about the hurricane and used an OLD National Hurricane Center forecast uncertainty chart (see below).   He was correct in saying that the previous track took the storm into Florida and the Gulf, but did not know that the latest predictions swung the storm north.  Someone had put a black line going into Alabama—presumably with a sharpie pen.   Trump never discussed it.

But that unmentioned line cause the media and some others to go wild, claiming he was deceiving the public, illegally altering official NOAA charts and more.    This reaction was excessive and was meant to put Trump on the defensive.  And it did.

According to a number of sources,  Trump told his Chief of Staff, Mike Mulvaney to have NOAA deal with the situation.  Mulvaney then called Wilbur Ross, Commerce Secretary, who in turn telephoned Neil Jacobs, Acting Administrator of NOAA.    Ross’ call implied that Jacobs and others were vulnerable if something wasn't done. 

Neil Jacob's Dilemma

Dr. Neil Jacobs, who is now acting administrator NOAA, was previously chief scientist for Panasonic’s weather business and an expert in numerical weather prediction.   I have known him for a number of years and have the greatest respect for him, both as a scientist and as a straight-shooting, ethical individual.  Although a Trump appointee, Dr. Jacobs is not political, but extraordinarily dedicated to improving U.S. weather prediction.  An outside agent of change that NOAA has needed for a long time.   But he is a young man without extensive experience in DC and dealing with its shark-filled political waters. And he was just about to be bitten by a shark.  In fact, several sharks.

Neil Jacobs

According to the NY Times and a recent report commissioned by NOAA (the NAPA report), Dr. Jacobs pushed back on Secretary of Commerce Ross' demands of a strong statement supporting the president (these demands by Commerce leadership and the White House were totally inappropriate). 

Neil Jacobs was under great pressure.  What should he do?  Neil knew that the Trump administration was supportive of improving U.S. weather prediction..    So should he resign and publicly oppose the President, jeopardizing the potential to enhance weather prediction, which would save lives and property?  Or should he revise a harsh statement produce by Commerce folks to one that was completely true but far more benign.  A statement that any real meteorologist would immediately know as meaningless, but would satisfy the weather-ignorant in the Trump administration?

Which was the ethical choice?  The choice of integrity?  The best for the American people?  I believe Neil made the correct choice.  But he would pay a price for it.

On Sept. 6, the following statement, substantially massaged by Dr. Jacobs, was released by NOAA:
The first paragraph is completely correct--the National Hurricane Center guidance DID have some probability of tropical storm force winds reaching Alabama during that period.   The second paragraph was also true:  the Birmingham NWS forecasters said there would be NO IMPACTS and did not qualify the risks (impacts of what?, their tweet suggested the chances were zero % rather than the predicted 5-10%).     
So the NOAA statement was entirely true and did NOT say that Birmingham office tweet was wrong, just that it would have been better to note the probabilities.  And apparently this artfully true/vague statement was allowed to replace a far harsher statement prepared by Commerce department leadership. 

You would think that everyone would breathe a sigh of relief in Dr. Jacob’s skillful finesse in dealing with this situation.  But not in this hyper-partisan environment.  And not with some folks in NOAA who were an unhappy with Dr. Jacobs efforts to move the agency to a new paradigm for numerical weather prediction.  The sharks were about to attack.

Scientific Integrity Charges

After the statement went out, there was a hue and cry by some of the media and a few individuals suggesting that NOAA science was being undermined by the statement and that the Birmingham forecasters were being criticized and punished.  One of the main complainants against Dr. Jacobs was a leading NOAA administrator, Craig McLean, who is chief scientist of NOAA (ironically Mr. McLean as an attorney does not have any science background).  

Based on these complaints, the designated NOAA integrity officer, Dr. Stephen Volz, brought in a panel from an independent group (NAPA, National Academy of Public Administration) to evaluate the situation.  None of these individuals were familiar with NOAA or the subject domain.

Their report (here) evaluated three charges.  The first was:

Media guidance issued by NOAA leadership between September 1 and
6, 2019, limited the ability of scientists to communicate with the media and the public
about their research findings. Policies allegedly violated include Section 4.05; Section
4.06; and Section 5.02 (a), (d), and (k) of NOAA’s Scientific Integrity Policy.

This charge was found to be baseless.

On the other hand, NOAA senior leadership was found by the panel to have violated NOAA integrity policy regarding two issues:

The Birmingham WFO forecasters were not provided the opportunity to
review and opine on the September 6 Statement that referenced the September 1
Birmingham Tweet and underlying scientific activity. Policies allegedly violated include
Section 7.01 of NOAA’s Scientific Integrity Policy.

The drafting of the September 6 Statement was driven by external
political pressure from Department of Commerce (Commerce) senior leaders and
inappropriately criticized the September 1 Birmingham Tweet and underlying scientific
activity. Further, the September 6 Statement compromised NOAA’s integrity and
reputation as an independent scientific agency and violated Section 7.02 of NOAA’s
Scientific Integrity Policy.

On the basis of these conclusions, there was been substantial media buzz criticizing Administrator Jacobs and even a call by Congressman Tonko to have Dr. Jacobs resign.

But even a superficial view of these charges quickly reveal they are baseless and ill-informed.

Consider the first “charge”, that the Birmingham forecasters did not have a chance to comment on the statement.  This is just silly.  The section in questions (7.01) does not refer to forecasts or to tweets sent out by forecasters.  It is about science integrity issues regarding research papers and particularly press releases and the like referring to NOAA science researcher’s efforts (you can read the section here).  What makes this particularly nonsensical is that if followed, every NOAA communication would have to be vetted by every supporting information source within the agency.  Thus,  a forecaster in Charleston would have to get the ok from the National Hurricane Center and any office that provided information used in the local prediction.  U.S. weather prediction would be impossible. 

The second charge is also baseless. 

That section says that NOAA officials must not: “Suppress, alter, or otherwise impede the timely release of scientific or technological findings or conclusions:

There was no suppressing of anything in this case; the tweets had already gone out. 

Congressman Tonko

Don’t get me wrong.  This NOAA statement was not a good thing.  The Commerce Department's pressure was inappropriate.  But the mention of the Birmingham NWS office was OPPOSED by Dr. Jacobs in meetings with Commerce officials and he was overruled. The actual statement should be seen for what it was: an attempt to protect the agency by putting out a true but meaningless message that would deflect and end inappropriate pressure by the Trump administration.   You may not agree with Dr. Jacob’s approach, but charges of lack of scientific integrity against him are hurtful and wrong.

The National Weather Service Forecasters in Birmingham Support Dr. Jacobs

You would think that if the NOAA statement was really problematic for NOAA staff, the forecasters at Birmingham would be the first to complain.  The opposite was the case, with the Birmingham office staff supportive of NOAA administrator Jacobs (stories here or here).  To make his support of the local NWS office absolutely clear, Dr. Jacobs spoke to the National Weather Association (a group that encompasses NWS forecasters) and to the local office in question.  They were understanding and not critical of him.  Interestingly, Dr. Jacobs was a classmate of several of the forecasters in the Birmingham office and is still friends with them. No NOAA administrator has been more interested in, knowledgeable about, and more in tune with NWS forecasters.

Dr. Jacob's Visit to the Birmingham NWS Forecast Office

Neil Jacobs Has Been the Change Agent NOAA has Needed

It has been clear for years that NOAA has needed new, more assertive leadership.  U.S. numerical prediction has stagnated (to fourth place in global prediction), satellite systems have had technical problems and huge overruns, and more.  Bringing someone in from the outside was critical (Dr. Jacobs was chief scientist in the Panasonic weather group).    

Dr. Jacobs has been the advocate of a new EPIC center for numerical weather prediction that will help bring NOAA and academic researchers together to improve U.S. numerical prediction.  He has also worked to improve NOAA’s financial management, saving the nation hundreds of millions of dollars.  In fact, several congressmen/women has acknowledged Neil’s role in saving the nation roughly 750 million dollars on satellite acquisition.  For example, Congressman Frank Lucas of the House Environment Committee stated:

I also want to thank Dr. Neil Jacobs for his leadership during this time. Not only are Dr. Jacobs and NOAA producing high-quality data and forecasts, but they are also doing it in a cost-effective manner and saving taxpayers $735 million dollars

But Neil Jacobs' role in dealing with some of the festering problems in NOAA has irritated some long-term NOAA bureaucrats.

The Real Victims of  Sharpiegate:  Dr. Jacobs and the American People

President Trump showed himself to be ill-informed on hurricane Dorian and the attempt to mark up an old forecast chart was comical.  His pressure on NOAA through the Department of Commerce was inappropriate and unethical.    But the attempt of some NOAA administrators, media, and others to attack NOAA acting administrator Neil Jacobs is both wrong and hurtful.  It is an attempt to sully the reputation of an extraordinarily dedicated public servant and administrator, whose passion is to repair and improve U.S. weather prediction capabilities.

It is attacking the victim.  And if they succeed in damaging Dr. Jacobs, who is an extraordinarily effective change agent in NOAA, U.S. weather prediction will be weakened and all the American people will become victims, with poorer warnings and guidance for severe and other weather.


  1. I’m sad to hear that this had such an unintended, and far more reaching, consequence than was actually reported.

    When the president constantly lies, he polarizes the well. So even when he tells the truth, much like a broken clock being right twice a day, he will be met with skepticism and criticism.

    That is fundamentally a bipartisan argument for removing him from office in November.

  2. Thanks for this, Cliff. Bringing out this balanced insight is necessary. Hope Dr. Jacobs survives the pressure and continues to serve the people of the US well.

  3. This November we get the choice of the incumbent 74 year old Divider in Chief or a 77 year old doddering establishment icon. Doddering Old Fool A or Doddering Old Fool B.

    Why must we have to pick the lesser of two evils????

    Perhaps old fool B might be more willing to work with the establishment rather than fire anyone who isn't in lockstep. Still.....77 and STARTING a 4 year term? His VP pick better be phenomenal and someone who actually cares to govern, not intimidate. The Vice Presidential pick is who we are actually electing. Otherwise its four more painful, exasperating years of The Donald.

    1. Totally agree...my pick for VP right now, is Susan Rice...a long term public servant, very bright, well spoken...and...she is considered to be a black person...that aspect of this election has to be a serious consideration...my only fear,is that the newly empowered Black Lives Matter movement, might see her as being too establishment,or just not being black enough...hope I am wrong about that!

  4. Disappointed that politics has creped into this blog. If you want to talk Politics look at what's happening in Washington's Seattle with no law and order. If I was a business I would move to a Republican State. We should Let these city's go bankrupt if they do not protect tax payers.

    1. Unknown, I as well like my crepes without politics, just as I like my blog comments to be free of vacuous political agendas.

    2. Leadership issues at NWS have a direct impact on that organization's ability to operate at peak performance, secure funding, recruit talent, and maintain public confidence -- and those things, in turn have a direct impact on the quality of our weather forecasts.

      In other words, it's a completely appropriate topic to discuss here. If that bothers you, why don't you just explain why you disagree with Cliff's position instead of trying to change the subject?

      Now that you brought it up, however, I'm dying to know -- why are current events in Seattle (or how you like your crepes prepared, or your travel plans when you imagine you're a business rather than a human being) suitable for discussion on a site called "Cliff Mass Weather Blog." The world wonders.

  5. Please, feel free to move. Now.

  6. NWDem...hypocrisy at its finest...if a Republican tells someone to move "now" they are called bigots, homophobes...pick a derogatory title...yet you fling it like a booger on your finger...typical leftist hypocrisy...sad to say but true...how's that summer of love thing working out for ya

  7. Most of this post is fine, but let's not pretend that the media was somehow to be blamed for this. Trump did something stupid and deserved to be criticized for it. That good public servant wasn't put in the crosshairs because of the media. It was purely because Trump can't admit to a simple error and move on. He forced his tiny ego on NOAA when he could have just let it go. The media didn't make him do that. He did it.

  8. A terrible tale, yes.

    Alas, I'm afraid that this is not the first - albeit completely egregious - example of the dark side of the 'politicization if science.' For years (decades, actually - think Oppenheimer and the Manhattan Project) researchers and other practitioners of the physical sciences have found themselves embroiled in painfully difficult positions because, alas, much "public sector" funding relies on the support of ideological camps. Anyone remotely involved in weather is keenly aware of how idelogically polarized (and polarizing) all-things-climate have become over time in virtually all partisan camps. That should not be, of course - the tenets of the requisite humility and objectivity of The Scientific Method should bind all good souls to cherish tough testabity, critique, and ever-improving refinements. But in politically charged (and politically dependent, partisan) spheres this is not always so... obviously. And, again, alas.

    What, if anything, can be done to correct this wrong?

  9. How can people consider the NWS Birmingham office credible after their tweet? As Cliff says at the time of the tweet there was a 5 to 10% chance of hurricane impact, and they come out and say that there was absolutely no chance.

    If you had a hypothetical ten chamber revolver with one bullet in it I think most people would not be willing to play one round of Russian roulette with it. That's pretty far from No chance.

    My take on their statement is that they decided to put it out because of their political bias against Trump.

    1. Yeah that worried me too, about the 5-10% chance, but I want to point out to any readers that in the graphic linked to in the NOAA statement, it shows that that chance (actually ONLY 5% by Sept 1) was only for the probability of 39 mph, unless I'm reading something wrong.

      NWS describes "39 to 46 mph" as a "Gale. Wind breaks twigs and small branches. Wind generally impedes walking."

      Unfortunately the next category jumps straight to 58 mph wind, which is far more damaging, but it absolutely, totally misses Alabama. All the other estimations on there point to Alabama being missed, too.
      NWS should perhaps have been more nuanced and maybe put up a clarifying statement somewhere (I don't think they did?), but it was a tweet and I can see why they wouldn't want to cause panic by making people think that a full-blown hurricane might hit them.

      Compare that to Trump's totally irresponsible, ignorant fear-mongering that "...Alabama will most likely be hit (much) harder than anticipated." https://mobile.twitter.com/realdonaldtrump/status/1168174613827899393

      And then on top of that, it appears that the @$@# and his administration pressured NOAA into making a statement that itself, though nuanced, was not nuanced enough and caused more confusion.

      All because he himself didn't know what the f he was talking about, and his fragile ego was, as it perpetually is, in tatters. He could have actually sought clarification about his mistake, in order to tell the American people he claims to love what actually happened, but instead he doubled down, presented a b.s. map with sharpie drawn onto it, bullied the NOAA, and had a tantrum on Twitter.

      So yeah, political bias.. not a good thing, but kinda justified here.


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