January 20, 2021

A Sharpie Can't Cover Up The Last Four Years

Today is the first flash of warmth after a long, cold winter. It's been a...trying...four years. Even the weather didn't make it out unscathed. Storms played a role in shaping some of the most important events of Donald Trump's term in office, ranging from a white lie on the day of his inauguration to a simple error in a presidential tweet that launched a coverup that almost toppled the leadership of NOAA. 

The National Weather Service, probably the most agreeable federal agency in the entire government, became a focal point several times during Donald Trump's four years in office. The federal weather agency survived a drawn-out attempt to install a former rival as its leader, the threat of steep budget cuts, a lengthy government shutdown, and a brazen assault on the agency by the executive branch launched over two words in a tweet.

It's not a partisan statement to point out that Donald Trump lies frequently. The outgoing president told thousands upon thousands of lies during his four years in office. Many of the lies were intentional. Many of the lies were a case of an apparent misremembering of details or his characteristic embellishment and exaggeration. But Trump's most harrowing and consequential lies were told with purpose, and those were the lies that caused the most damage. 

Intrepid fact-checker Daniel Dale, who analyzed just about every public statement Trump made while in office, started his top-line review of Trump's lies with one succinct summary: "Trump began his presidency by lying about the weather." 

The Inauguration

Donald Trump's inauguration on January 20, 2017, is best remembered for the White House's weeks-long effort to convince the American public that the crowd on the National Mall was much, much bigger than it looked in photographs. The lie—which eventually snowballed into an order for the National Parks Service to stop tweeting after they contradicted the lie about the inaugural crowd size—wasn't the first lie told about the inauguration.

Before White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer told reporters that Trump's inauguration had the biggest audience in the history of presidential swearings-in, "period," the president himself told the audience at an inaugural ball an embellished story about how it didn't start raining until he had finished his inaugural address.

Except, it did rain during his address. We know it rained because there's video of it raining about a minute into the speech. There were raindrops on Trump's suit jacket and everyone started putting on ponchos behind him. But, there Trump stood, waxing poetic about how it didn't rain during his speech even though everyone could see it rain.

It was a tiny lie. But it demonstrated how even the truth about the small things, the demonstrably false things we all saw for ourselves and knew to be false, were up for grabs.

It was the tiny lies that paved the way for the big ones.

The Sharpie Map

In addition to Florida - South Carolina, North Carolina, Georgia, and Alabama, will most likely be hit (much) harder than anticipated. Looking like one of the largest hurricanes ever. Already a category 5. BE CAREFUL! GOD BLESS EVERYONE!
Donald Trump mistakenly tweeted the morning of September 1, 2019, that Alabama was one of the states that would be hit "(much) harder than anticipated" by Hurricane Dorian as the scale-topping storm came dangerously close to Florida.

The only problem was that Alabama wasn't actually anywhere near Hurricane Dorian's predicted path. This was the forecast map issued by the National Hurricane Center the morning Trump sent out that tweet:

After Trump's tweet, a flood of calls to the National Weather Service office in Birmingham, Alabama, prompted the office to use its own Twitter account to say that the state was not in Hurricane Dorian's path. Even though forecasters didn't know Trump was the reason people started getting antsy, the administration took their statement as a direct slight against the president, sending the executive branch on an increasingly bizarre crusade to "prove" Trump right that ended with a threat to fire NOAA's leadership if they didn't issue a statement renouncing the forecasters' statement.  

It's going to be hard for future generations to understand how the Hurricane Dorian dustup came to symbolize Trump's sole term in office. The context is that Trump rarely admits when he's wrong, and hardly ever corrects smaller mistakes, because doing so would be a sign of weakness, and he will not say or do anything that casts himself in a weak light.

Early in the COVID-19 pandemic, for instance, his extreme aversion to using unfavorable words to describe himself resulted in an Arrested Development-like exchange when he told reporters that he'd "tested very positively for the coronavirus." After reporters pushed him for clarification, he backtracked by saying he "tested positively toward negative" to describe testing negative for the virus. The word "negative" was so...well, negative...to him that he couldn't even bring himself to say that he didn't have the virus.

Source: Twitter/@WhiteHouse

And to that end, in the aftermath of a seemingly simple error in one tweet, the administration stepped up and kept escalating the situation until Trump's mistake became truth in an alternate reality.

The effort culminated in Trump himself  scribbling on a three-day-old printout of a forecast map to crudely extend the forecasters' cone of uncertainty to include Alabama. The president's Sharpie-scrawled bubble, looking like an eye on a potato that sat in the pantry too long, was the perfect encapsulation of the mindset that drove these last couple of years: the truth is what Trump says it is.

The coverup and eventual fallout from Trump's mistake-turned-Sharpiegate competed against the fact that there was a major hurricane just a few dozen miles off the coast of the third-most populous state in the country. Forecast updates and preparedness information became sub-headlines to stories about the president forcing the government to help him avoid admitting he made a mistake in a tweet.

The administration's handling of Trump's tweet about Hurricane Dorian was perhaps the most telling incident of the entire presidency. A similar situation played out as the coronavirus pandemic tumbled out of control. Trump downplayed the virus at first, boasting to reporters that the virus would disappear after just a few dozen cases. Case totals and deaths continued to soar throughout the final year of his presidency even as he went out of his way to play it down.

NOAA Administrator

It wasn't just the campaign to preserve the president's self-image. The federal weather agency came under a political threat as well. The president nominated Barry Myers, then-CEO of AccuWeather, to become the Undersecretary of Commerce for Oceans and Atmosphere, or the administrator of NOAA.

AccuWeather employs many meteorologists who are genuinely good-hearted people who do honest work to keep their audiences informed and prepared. AccuWeather's leadership, unfortunately, has made some questionable decisions over the years, not the least of which was the company's not-so-subtle campaign to vanquish the National Weather Service as a competitor.

Pushback to Myers' nomination, which included concern about potential conflicts of interest as well as larger concern about the company's history of viewing the National Weather Service as unfair competition, was swift—and it actually seemed to make a difference. The Republican-controlled Senate never advanced Myers to the floor for a vote despite the president having nominated him three times: first in 2017, then on resubmission in 2018 and 2019. (Presidential nominations normally expire when the Senate adjourns at the end of each year.)

Myers ultimately withdrew his own name from nomination in November 2019, citing health issues that would make it difficult for him to serve in the role. The position was then filled by Dr. Neil Jacobs, who headed the agency as acting administrator. Trump's presidency was the first time since the position was created in 1970 that the Senate never acted to confirm an administrator for NOAA.

The Shutdown

There was also the time that National Weather Service meteorologists had to miss a paycheck because Trump wouldn't sign a bill to fund the government unless Congress paid for a wall along the border with Mexico.

The federal government ran out of money on December 22, 2018. Usually, if Congress can't agree on a budget, they'll pass a temporary funding agreement while they work on a deal. Sometimes, though, negotiations break down and the funding runs out. When the funding runs out, the government shuts down.

Historically, shutdowns only last a couple of days while Congressional leadership and the White House work out a deal.

But this one went on. And on.

And on.

When the federal government shuts down, most of the government's public-facing services grind to a halt. National parks close and more than 800,000 employees are sent home and told not to return to work until the funding returns. But there are so many essential employees who have to come to work every day during a shutdown without knowing when they'll receive their next paycheck.

The 35-day shutdown became the longest in American history. The shutdown dragged on for so long that essential federal employees—including forecasters at the National Weather Service—missed a paycheck. These hardworking people had to scramble to make ends meet while still working hard as ever to keep the public informed of hazards coming their way.

It never needed to happen. Funding bills passed the House and the Senate, but the president dug in and insisted he wouldn't sign a budget without full funding for a border wall. The standoff continued through the last half of January 2019, at which point the president relented, signed the bill, and the folks at the National Weather Service finally got the pay they worked for.

The 2020 Budget

The president's budget proposal for 2020 included slashing more than $75,000,000—seventy-five million dollars!—in funding to the National Weather Service. That's a lot of money.

Such a deep slash in funding would have kneecapped an agency that was already stretched thin by understaffing, making it that much harder to fulfill its responsibilities to the American public. The plan would have fired nearly 250 meteorologists, cut funding for weather stations and upper-air weather balloon launches, and ended a valuable research project to study tornadoes in the southeastern United States.

Thankfully, the cuts never came to pass.

Hurricane Harvey

It wasn't always a lie that caused an issue. Donald Trump issued a controversial pardon to the former sheriff of Maricopa County, Arizona, while Hurricane Harvey made landfall in Texas in August 2017. He announced the pardon as the hurricane made landfall because he "assumed ratings would be far higher" since people were already watching storm coverage on the news. Hurricane Harvey caused more than $100 billion in damages and killed nearly 70 people.

Puerto Rico

Donald Trump and his administration delayed meaningful aid to Puerto Rico after Hurricane Maria devastated the island. The storm killed thousands of people and severed electricity to much of the island for months after the storm. The president said that he believed the death toll was inflated to make him look bad, conditioned billions of dollars in disaster aid on political goals like prohibiting the island from raising the minimum wage, and implied that further aid to the island was contingent upon the territory's political leadership showing "appreciation" for him.


The weather for Trump's arrival in Palm Beach, Florida, will be sunny with a gentle breeze, low humidity, and a temperature around 70°F.

A little while later, Joe Biden will take office in Washington under clear skies and gusty winds. It'll be chilly, but warmer weather is right around the corner.

[Top Photo: Flickr/White House]

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I graduated from the University of South Alabama in 2014 with a degree in political science and a minor in meteorology. I contribute to The Weather Network as a digital writer, and I've written for Forbes, the Washington Post's Capital Weather Gang, Popular Science, Mental Floss, and Gawker's The Vane. My latest book, The Skies Above, is now available. My first book, The Extreme Weather Survival Manual, arrived in October 2015.

1 comment:

  1. Great writeup - a good encapsulation of what that presidency was from a specific angle, a microcosm that nonetheless shows the breadth of his wrongdoings. Thanks for writing this.