One week ago, with Hurricane Dorian swirling in the Atlantic off the coast of Florida, President Trump’s mistake about there being a risk to Alabama was a quick flash that hadn’t attracted much attention. He’d tweeted about that risk well after any serious threat had passed, but since he’d done so on the Sunday of Labor Day weekend, few people noticed. A number of people in Alabama did, however, and they called in to local authorities, prompting the National Weather Service in Birmingham to clarify publicly that no such threat still existed. As of Monday afternoon of last week, that’s where it lay.
Until Trump decided to complain publicly about an ABC News report noting the Alabama mistake. That Monday evening, the president disparaged ABC News’s Jonathan Karl as a “lightweight,” insisting Alabama was at risk. It was a refrain he kept up all week, heightening the conflict by altering an old hurricane map with a marker to make Alabama appear to be more at risk and, later, changing his claims to center on the threat of wind damage. At the time of his tweet, Alabama faced a small chance of 40 mph winds, a threat that has become the formal rationalization for Trump’s tweet.
More importantly, though, we’ve seen how Trump and his administration have attempted to police this nonsensical claim.
After Trump altered that hurricane map from the Oval Office, the White House released a statement from Coast Guard Rear Adm. Peter Brown, the president’s homeland security and counterterrorism adviser. The statement from Brown insisted Trump’s “comments were based on that morning’s Hurricane Dorian briefing, which included the possibility of tropical storm force winds in southeastern Alabama.” CNN later reported Brown had been ordered by Trump to issue the statement.
Again, the tweet at issue asserted Alabama and states along the Eastern Seaboard would “most likely be hit (much) harder than anticipated” by “one of the largest hurricanes ever.” The claim came after the threat of a direct hit on Alabama had passed and while the only threat was that 1-in-10 shot at a strong breeze.
Stoked by repeated tweets from Trump, the controversy continued to burble. Late Friday afternoon, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration released a statement similarly defending Trump’s claim on the grounds that a small threat of stronger-than-normal winds existed. It further chastised the National Weather Service’s Birmingham office for having contradicted Trump in its initial response.
It was a remarkable enlistment of an objective, science-based agency to the defense of Trump’s false presentation about the risk to Alabama. Having a member of the military, of which the president is commander in chief, step out in Trump’s defense is one thing. Having the scientific agency that makes the hurricane maps do it is another thing entirely.
There was immediate backlash, with NOAA officials and employees internally criticizing the unsigned Friday statement and alumni of the organization doing so publicly. The organization’s chief scientist informed staff in an email that he would investigate where the statement originated.
As the New York Times first reported on Monday, there was reportedly pressure from above. The NOAA is part of the Commerce Department, led by Secretary Wilbur Ross. The Times reported that Ross threatened to fire top NOAA officials for the NWS Birmingham contradiction only hours before the statement was released. Ross, of course, serves at the pleasure of Trump.
We can put all of this more simply. Trump made a mistake and, faced with objective analysis showing that he was wrong, attempted to mislead the public on Twitter and by showing a doctored map, asked a senior official to defend his untrue claim and benefited from his commerce secretary putting pressure on the organization that generated the objective analysis.
It’s at moments like this that it’s worth remembering how Trump came to the White House. His background was not in Congress or elected office, where he’d have some familiarity with power-sharing and constituent accountability. His background was, instead, at his eponymous privately held company, where he was accountable to no one but himself. It was the business-world equivalent of a dictatorship, and it was where he spent decades exerting power.
The bizarre fight over Trump’s Alabama tweet, otherwise known as Sharpiegate, reveals how Trump struggles against wielding power under a different type of structure. He wants the government to respond in the way the Trump Organization would have: with complete fealty, however obviously contradictory the product of that fealty might be.
He’s had more luck bringing another institution into line: the Republican Party.
Trump’s Monday started with a smattering of claims not related to Alabama and Dorian. Included among them was the apparently out-of-the-blue claim that he had 94 percent approval among Republicans, which he doesn’t.
Where did that come from? It came from his concerns about a number of Republicans who have announced primary challenges against him, most recently former South Carolina governor Mark Sanford. Speaking to reporters before traveling to a campaign rally in North Carolina, Trump made the explicit link between his possibly made-up approval number and his concerns about a primary challenger.
“We just got, right — a little while ago, 94 percent popularity or approval rating within the Republican Party,” Trump said. “So, to be honest, I’m not looking to give them any credibility. They have no credibility.” After having said he didn’t know who his possible GOP opponents were, he then disparaged each of the announced challengers in specific terms.
That came on the heels of a more revealing shift within the party Trump leads. During the weekend, the Republican Party organizations in Nevada and in Sanford’s home state of South Carolina announced they would not hold presidential nominating contests in 2020, joining Kansas.
This isn’t without precedent as a maneuver; as recently as 2004, the GOP shut down primaries — ostensibly to save money but with an understanding that it would help incumbent President George W. Bush. As party-primary researcher Josh Putnam pointed out on Twitter, though, these new moves are slightly different.
“These are state-level actions with some input from the national party level and the reelection effort,” he wrote. But while past presidents have shut down primaries, this new effort “has been fueled by just how controversial the president is. Trump has fed into that.”
While talking to reporters on Monday, Trump claimed he had “nothing to do with” the states shutting down their primaries (a claim he has made about a lot of things, often falsely). He then went on to describe his challengers as “a total joke. They’re a joke. They’re a laughingstock.”
Clearly Trump doesn’t think that the party should have to present options to Republican voters for a decision to be made, any more than he thinks government agencies should be in the habit of contradicting him. He’s probably not wrong that those opponents don’t have much of a chance, but, to him, it must seem a bit like asking Trump Organization employees to vote on who should serve as CEO. He’s going to win — but it might not be with the 94 percent mandate that he claims, and wouldn’t that be embarrassing?
There are all sorts of obvious problems that trickle outward from this approach to governance, but none are more revealing than the one that flows from Trump’s assertions about his Alabama tweet. The NWS office in Birmingham contradicted Trump not out of pique but because, The Washington Post reported, worried residents were calling with questions.
Trump’s public response has been to crack down on the perceived insolence of the scientists rather than to ensure that the public got accurate information. Which, if you think about it, might tell us something about how he ran the Trump Organization, too.
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