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Sharpiegate Blossoms Into A Full-Fledged Political Crisis


Now to the seemingly never-ending saga about the president, a hurricane, the state of Alabama and a Sharpie. To recap, last week President Trump insisted Hurricane Dorian was threatening Alabama. Then he held up a map which, according to reports, had been altered with a black marker to indicate the path of the storm. Now the commerce secretary has gotten involved, and the whole thing is raising questions about how this administration uses political power to protect the president. NPR media correspondent David Folkenflik's been following the story and joins us now. Hi, David.


MARTIN: All right. So can you just explain what happened? What do we know, and what is being disputed by federal scientists?

FOLKENFLIK: Sure. Well, look - this is one of those things which actually is pretty serious right now. But putting on my media critic's hat, I'd say it started as kind of a typical Trumpest (ph) in a tweetpot (ph).


FOLKENFLIK: You know, it was a gaffe that might have been overcovered. If you go back to September 1, a little before 11 a.m., Trump tweets that Alabama was among the states that's going to be hit hard by, what he said, hurricane 5, you know, one of the hardest on record. Twenty minutes later, folks at the Birmingham National Weather Service said, not so; system was too far away to do damage to Alabama. It's all fine. It may well have been based on some maps showing some tropical wind gusts might hit Alabama in an outdated map.

September 4 - President Trump has that Sharpie-enhanced map. Who enhanced it? Who knows, but we do know the president loves Sharpies. And then - you know, then it gets serious. Then a rear admiral who's Trump's counterterrorism adviser comes out with statements saying he'd given the president a briefing showing that, on September 6, NOAA - which is the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration - sends out a statement basically rebuking the Birmingham National Weather Service in Alabama, saying it was inconsistent with probabilities from best forecasts. And let's remember...

MARTIN: Saying essentially that the president is right; you, Alabama weather officials, are wrong.

FOLKENFLIK: Yeah, backing him up.


FOLKENFLIK: And let's remember - these are proudly scientific agencies, NOAA and the National Weather Service. It's really important they have their independence so people can make their best judgments on their safety. Businesses rely on outfits like this. And this seemed to be bent to try to prove the president right after the fact.

MARTIN: But now Wilbur Ross is involved, the commerce secretary?

FOLKENFLIK: So look - you know, what we saw on Sunday was that the acting chief scientist of NOAA - which is the parent agency of the National Weather Service - said, hey, I'm going to review whether there was any political interference.

And, yes, it appears as - there are allegations first reported by The New York Times that the commerce secretary, which is over - who is over all of this stuff, personally got involved and said, heads are going to roll at NOAA if the National Weather Service are contradicting the president. It is triggered, the review, by the acting chief scientist. It's triggered, apparently, an inspector general's review, you know, the question of whether or not these agencies are being allowed to operate free of partisan involvement.

MARTIN: So David, this is now a question of whether or not the president's hand-picked cabinet member was pressuring federal scientists, nonpartisan scientists, to change the facts.

FOLKENFLIK: That's the allegation. The commerce secretary has had a spokesman deny that. But I think this is also about the larger issue about whether or not the Trump administration is going to allow information long-prized by independent scientists, not partisan figures, that help to inform Americans and their institutions, to help them make good decisions, whether that is going to be bent to personal pique and partisan intent in a way that, you know, cuts against how the federal government's supposed to work.

MARTIN: NPR's David Folkenflik for us on this story. David, we appreciate it. Thank you.

FOLKENFLIK: You bet. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

David Folkenflik was described by Geraldo Rivera of Fox News as "a really weak-kneed, backstabbing, sweaty-palmed reporter." Others have been kinder. The Columbia Journalism Review, for example, once gave him a "laurel" for reporting that immediately led the U.S. military to institute safety measures for journalists in Baghdad.