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NOAA’s chief scientist to probe agency’s defense of Trump’s Dorian claims amid backlash from forecasters

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The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s acting chief scientist said that he would investigate why the agency backed President Donald Trump’s claims about Hurricane Dorian hitting Alabama over its own forecasters.

In an internal email obtained by NBC News, NOAA’s Craig McLean wrote Sunday that an unsigned Friday statement issued by the agency in defense of Trump “inappropriately and incorrectly contradicted the [National Weather Service] forecaster.” The Friday statement referred to a tweet from National Weather Service’s Birmingham, Alabama office last weekend rebutting the president, who had claimed earlier in the day that Alabama was in the path of the storm.

“My understanding is that this intervention to contradict the forecaster was not based on science but on external factors including reputation and appearance, or simply put, political,” McLean wrote. “Our NOAA Scientific Integrity Policy and Code of Scientific Conduct make clear that all NOAA employees shall approach all scientific activities with honesty, objectively, and completely, without allegiance to individuals, organizations, or ideology.”

He called the content of the release “very concerning as it compromises the ability of NOAA to convey life-saving information necessary to avoid substantial and specific danger to public health and safety.”

“If the public cannot trust our information, or we debase our forecaster’s warnings and products, that specific danger arises,” he continued. “You know that the value of our science is in the complexity of our understanding, our ability to convey that understanding to a wide audience of users of this information, and to establish and sustain the public trust in the truth and legitimacy of that information. Unfortunately, the press release of last Friday violated this trust and violated NOAA’s policies of scientific integrity.”

McLean said he is “pursuing the potential violations of our NOAA Administrative Order on Scientific Integrity,” adding, “I have a responsibility to pursue these truths.”

The email was first reported by The Washington Post.

NOAA’s Friday statement caused an uproar in the weather community. The unsigned statement defended Trump’s claims that the hurricane would affect Alabama, adding that NWS Birmingham was wrong to speak “in absolute terms” regarding its tweet insisting Alabama was not at risk. According to the New York Times, the letter is also being reviewed by the inspector general for the Commerce Department, which oversees NOAA.

The kerfuffle over Trump’s Alabama remarks has now gone on for more than a week, well after the storm devastated the Bahamas and caused major damage in the Carolinas. It began with Trump tweeting on Sept. 1 that Alabama “would most likely be hit (much) harder than anticipated.”

At that time, the southeastern corner of Alabama stood at a minuscule risk of receiving tropical storm force winds in excess of 39 miles per hour. But the state was not in the National Hurricane Center’s projected path for the storm or its “cone of uncertainty,” which by that point showed the hurricane moving up the East Coast.

About 20 minutes after Trump’s tweet, NWS Birmingham tweeted: “Alabama will NOT see any impacts from #Dorian” because the storm “will remain too far east.”

Trump doubled down later that day, twice telling reporters that the storm was threatening Alabama. Then, on Wednesday, Trump displayed an apparently doctored map in the Oval Office that showed Alabama — circled in black marker that looked to be from a Sharpie — to be within Dorian’s path.

Trump would lament coverage of his Alabama remarks in the days to come, tweeting that the coverage was meant to “demean” him.

The New York Times on Monday reported that Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross threatened to fire top employees at the NOAA over the Birmingham office’s statement, according to three people familiar with the discussion. According to the Times, that threat led to NOAA’s statement on Friday backing up the president’s claims. A Commerce Department spokesperson called the Times’ report “false.”

The Friday statement was met with derision from forecasters and industry leaders. Dan Sobien, president of the National Weather Service Employees Organization, the union that represents NWS forecasters, blasted the statement in a Friday tweet, calling it “disgusting and disingenuous.”

The head of the National Weather Service on Monday issued a strong defense of the Alabama forecasters who contradicted Trump, earning a round of applause at a National Weather Association event in Birmingham, the Associated Press reported.

NWS Director Louis Uccellini said local forecasters made the right call in tweeting that Alabama faced no threat, saying that they had fielded calls from concerned citizens and only later found out that the president was the source of the misinformation.

Uccellini said those forecasters “did what any office would do to protect the public.”

Responding to McLean’s email, Scott Smullen, the NOAA’s deputy director of communications, said the agency’s “senior career leaders are free to express their opinions about matters of agency operations and science.”

“The agency will not be providing further official comment, and will not speculate on internal reviews,” he added.

Associated Press and Hallie Jackson contributed.



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Plenty of substance but little drama on first day of impeachment hearings

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WASHINGTON — It was substantive, but it wasn’t dramatic.

In the reserved manner of veteran diplomats with Harvard degrees, Bill Taylor and George Kent opened the public phase of the House impeachment inquiry into President Donald Trump by bearing witness to a scheme they described as not only wildly unorthodox but also in direct contravention of U.S. interests.

“It is clearly in our national interest to deter further Russian aggression,” Taylor, the acting U.S. ambassador to Ukraine and a decorated Vietnam War veteran, said in explaining why Trump’s decision to withhold congressionally appropriated aid to the most immediate target of Russian expansionism didn’t align with U.S. policy.

But at a time when Democrats are simultaneously eager to influence public opinion in favor of ousting the president and quietly apprehensive that their hearings could stall or backfire, the first round felt more like the dress rehearsal for a serious one-act play than opening night for a hit Broadway musical.

During five and a half hours of testimony, under questioning from House Intelligence Committee members of both parties and staff lawyers from each side of the aisle, the two men delivered a wide-ranging discourse on America’s interests in Eastern Europe, diplomatic protocol and democratic norms — and how they believe Trump subverted all of them in service of political goals.

And yet Taylor and Kent failed — or perhaps succeeded, given their nonpartisan roles in government and the atypically serious postures struck by lawmakers of both parties — by dropping no bombshells and largely repeating the testimony they gave congressional investigators at depositions previously held behind closed doors.

“If you have to do something that makes Republicans in this country believe the president has committed some serious infraction, then today was ‘ball one,'” said Matt Schlapp, a Trump ally who speaks frequently to White House officials and GOP lawmakers. “It wasn’t a wild pitch, but it wasn’t close to the strike zone.”

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Trump told reporters at the White House that he did not watch the proceedings.

“I hear it’s a joke,” he said. “This is a sham, and it shouldn’t be allowed.”

Even if the president wasn’t watching, Rep. Peter Welch, D-Vt., told Republicans on the committee who want an intelligence community whistleblower to testify that Trump is welcome to defend himself under oath.

For their part, Republicans poked no real holes in witness testimony, spent little time defending Trump, and burned time off the clock by asking about conspiracy theories that have captivated their political base but which are easily debunked.

At one point, Rep. Jim Jordan, R-Ohio — who was added to the GOP’s roster on the committee for the impeachment hearings — appeared to confound Taylor by insisting the president couldn’t have conditioned aid for Ukraine on an investigation into political rival Joe Biden, because the money ultimately flowed and the probe was never announced.

House Intelligence Committee Chairman Adam Schiff, D-Calif., who avoided contentious back-and-forth exchanges with his GOP counterparts, waited until the end of the hearing to explain to the viewing audience that Trump released the funding only after the whistleblower complaint that would expose his plot arrived at the White House.

Democrats had prepared themselves for Republicans to try to hijack the hearing with procedural motions and wild lines of questioning, but that never quite materialized. The decorum on the GOP side was commendable enough in Schiff’s view that he thanked the minority party in his concluding remarks.

Republicans conducted themselves “in a serious way” and in a “civil way,” he said.

There wasn’t much either side could grab onto.

Taylor did create a stir when he told the committee one of his aides overheard an ambassador at the center of the story, Gordon Sondland, talking to the president about Ukraine on the phone. Afterward, Sondland told the staffer that Trump cared more about getting Ukraine to open investigations into Biden, a 2020 Democratic presidential candidate, and his son Hunter than about any issues that mattered to the Ukrainians.

But that served as more of a footnote than a headline.

The lawmakers will reconvene Friday with testimony from former U.S. ambassador to Ukraine Marie Yovanovitch, who was ousted after Trump loyalists ran a disinformation campaign against her.

Democratic strategists say their side will have to do a better job to capture public attention.

“It’s clear this is going to be a battle of narratives and messages,” Democratic strategist Chris Kofinis said. “Based on Day One, if the goal was to present a clear and easy-to-follow narrative, neither side did a stellar job. We need to stop presenting this like a foreign policy class — this needs to be about making a clear case about what the president did wrong, again and again. That narrative is getting lost.”

There’s time for Democrats to tell a more compelling version of the story — keeping in mind that the attention span of most Americans doesn’t match that of most C-SPAN viewers.

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Federal appeals court rejects Trump’s effort to shield his taxes

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A federal appeals court on Wednesday let stand a ruling allowing lawmakers to subpoena President Donald Trump’s accountants for years of his financial records. A lawyer for the president promised to appeal to the Supreme Court.

On an 8-3 vote, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit declined to grant a hearing before the full court, upholding a ruling last month by a three-judge panel of the court to allow the subpoena.

The decision means that unless Trump appeals to the Supreme Court and wins, the House Oversight and Reform Committee can enforce its subpoena ordering the accounting firm, Mazars USA LLP, to hand over any documents in its possession related to accounts of the Trump Organization dating to January 2009.

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The subpoena was issued in March after the committee heard testimony from Michael Cohen, Trump’s former personal attorney, alleging that Trump exaggerated his wealth when he sought loans.

Jay Sekulow, a personal lawyer for President Donald Trump pictured at Regent University in Virginia Beach, Virginia, in 2015, praised the dissent filed against the court’s refusal to hear an appeal of its ruling last month.Steve Helber / AP file

The appeals court had already put a seven-day hold on the legal effect of the ruling so Trump’s attorneys could appeal. Jay Sekulow, one of the president’s personal attorneys, said late Wednesday that “in light of the well reasoned dissent, we will be seeking review at the Supreme Court.”

In a 2-1 vote, the three-judge appeals panel held last month that the subpoena served “legitimate legislative pursuits.”

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“Contrary to the president’s arguments, the committee possesses authority under both the House rules and the Constitution to issue the subpoena, and Mazars must comply,” wrote Judge David Tatel, who was nominated to the court in 1994 by President Bill Clinton.

One of the three judges who dissented on Wednesday, Gregory G. Katsas, acknowledged that the subpoena wouldn’t hinder “the president’s need to secure candid advice from close governmental advisors,” an argument often used by presidents to keep communications privileged.

But allowing this subpoena to be enforced against personal documents would create “an open season on the president’s personal records,” wrote Katsas, whom Trump appointed to the court in December 2017.

“This threat to presidential autonomy and independence is far greater than that presented by compulsory process issued by prosecutors in criminal cases” or even by private plaintiffs, he wrote.

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Welch tells Jordan: Trump 'is welcome to take a seat right there'

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Rep. Peter Welch, D-Vt., told Rep. Jim Jordan, R-Ohio, that “President Trump is welcome to take a seat right there,” and testify after Jordan claimed no one had first-hand knowledge in the impeachment inquiry.

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