Scroll to top

‘This isn’t just a stupid story, it’s a big story’: An oral history of Sharpiegate

Article published on Stamford Advocate by Dan Zak, Caitlin Gibson and Ben Terris of Washington Post available here

President Donald Trump during an Oval Office briefing on the status of Hurricane Dorian on Sept. 4.Photo: Washington Post Photo By Bill O’Leary

A hurricane’s path may seem erratic at times, but modern forecasting has turned the chaos of weather into data, patterns, probabilities. No such technology exists to forecast what President Donald Trump is going to do.

While he cannot control the weather, Trump can create pressure systems in his natural habitat: Twitter. Over the course of one Scaramucci (about 10 days), as Hurricane Dorian churned through the Atlantic, a metaphysical storm gathered force, with the president at the center. It swept up all sorts of people who weren’t in Dorian’s path: meteorologists in Alabama, politicians from Texas and Tennessee, even a Baptist pastor in Kentucky.

The hurricane destroyed homes and claimed lives. The deluge of presidential tweets caused a different kind of chaos - superficial to some, serious to others. We compiled an oral history of the two storms. Not everyone went fully on the record, and the White House ignored multiple requests to comment.

KEVIN LAWS, science and operations officer for the National Weather Service office in Birmingham, Alabama: We are located about 25 miles south of Birmingham in a small town named Calera. We have about 25 or 26 employees, not all meteorologists, and we work 24/7, 365. The weather never stops, so we never stop.

JENNI L. EVANS, centennial president of the American Meteorological Society: I’m a hurricane researcher, so Dorian was always something to be looking at. Dorian formed in the zone where you would expect very intense hurricanes to originate.

A GULF COAST METEOROLOGIST: I recall seeing meteorologists on social media in conversations amongst themselves, basically talking about, “Well, if it does miss Hispaniola and does miss Puerto Rico, then it has a lot of opportunity to start to develop.” At that point, this is something that needs to be watched.

LAWS (NWS Birmingham): There were definitely some outlying tracks showing the storm moving into Alabama. We actually had an internal discussion that entire week leading up to Friday [Aug. 30] on what to do in our office, in putting it in the forecast … We had one briefing with all partners, and I want to say it was Friday, Aug. 30, at 11 o’clock. We were also involved in a state coordination call, a governor’s call. I think they had one last one on Saturday (Aug. 31), early. That was the last one we had because (Dorian’s) track had shifted so far east.

About 24 hours later, at 10:51 a.m., Sept. 1, Trump moved on from tweeting about sitcom star Debra Messing: “In addition to Florida - South Carolina, North Carolina, Georgia, and Alabama, will most likely be hit (much) harder than anticipated.”

LAWS: It’s a quiet Sunday morning, and we’re already past (Dorian) and looking into our future here, which was hot and dry like usual. I wasn’t there (in the office) personally, but we started getting calls to the forecasters (from the public). And I think comments came up on our Facebook page about the storm. And the forecasters got concerned because it seemed to be all of a sudden. Bizarre questions like, “When are we going to be impacted?” So we thought, “Let’s put this statement out on Twitter.”

The statement came 20 minutes after the president’s tweet: “Alabama will NOT see any impacts from #Dorian. We repeat, no impacts from Hurricane #Dorian will be felt across Alabama. The system will remain too far east.”

LAWS: We didn’t know anything about (the president’s tweet). Our office is very nonpolitical. So we don’t keep up with what anybody says.

MONICA MEDINA, former principal deputy undersecretary of commerce for oceans and atmosphere at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA): I saw them doing their job. They’re just saying, “Nope, there’s confusion out there in the world. We are clarifying. We are coming out with the definitive best information.” And I was like, “Great. That’s awesome.” Then the media started reporting that it was them correcting the president.

LAWS: After we put that statement out, all these political statements started coming in. We were like, “Wait, why are people saying this now?” … Nobody ever called to ask our side of it. They just assumed we did it on purpose (to respond to the president).

A GULF COAST METEOROLOGIST:We’ve seen this before from other politicians - where they’ll be well-intended in what they’re trying to say, but somewhere along the line they mess up one of the details, and it’s a forgivable mistake. … My first thought: “It was an accident. OK, it happens, and hopefully it’s corrected.” And then it wasn’t.

LAWS: All of a sudden the spotlight’s on everybody. And everybody goes through the thought: “Well, should we delete?” But if you delete (the tweet), that also sends a message. And we decided, let’s just let it stand. In our opinion it was a genuine statement of truth and fact.

MEDINA: Over-warning people is significant. You get businesses to close, and people don’t go on their vacation. Or they go up on their roof and fall because they’re putting storm shutters on. People do hurt themselves, or worse.

EVANS (American Meteorological Society): I remember hearing (Trump) saying the Alabama thing and people trying to correct him. And I thought that will just be the end of it.

Dorian was now a Category 5 hurricane, beginning its long thrash of the Bahamas.

ANNA BERARDELLI-KNOWLES, resident of Nassau, Bahamas: When the hurricane came, I was at home with my kids in Nassau. It was horrifically scary. We were only being hit by the outer bands, we had a lot of rain, and a lot of wind. … We had tons and tons of rain, we had flooding. But we did not have anything like what Abaco and Freeport had. So we knew we needed to help the people there.

By Labor Day, Sept. 2, the islands of the Bahamas were in serious trouble.

BERARDELLI-KNOWLES: A group of us - friends who are all boat captains - we got together and made a plan to use our personal boats to help. We all left Nassau quickly, and worked out of Harbour Island. It happened so fast. We got supplies, medical supplies, we had insulin, we had food, we had satellite phones, we had towels, and we knew we needed to go in and get evacuees out, and that’s what we did.

A GULF COAST METEOROLOGIST: From the professional side, you’re completely in awe of what you’re seeing. But the reality is: You see it approaching a small island where there are people who have no chance of escaping. … You’re sobered by it.

EVANS (American Meteorological Society): One of the reasons we do what we do as meteorologists is we care about people. The math is fun, but the forecast is really helping people to live their lives in the best way.

Meanwhile, in Alabama, the actual forecast at that time was sunny.

ELIZABETH VAN ANTWERP, resident of the Mobile Bay area of Alabama: We didn’t even buy extra groceries. We watched the European model and followed that one. And Alan Sealls. He’s the only weatherman worth listening to in this area.

ANTHONY MILLER, her partner: (Dorian) wasn’t coming here.

VAN ANTWERP: It was obvious it wasn’t coming here.

That evening, ABC News correspondent Jonathan Karl reported on “World News Tonight” that Trump had “misstated the storm’s possible trajectory.” The president responded on Twitter, but used the wrong handle for Karl. He instead tweeted at a Baptist pastor in Hodgenville, Kentucky.

REV. JONATHAN CARL, South Fork Baptist Church: It was Labor Day weekend, and my wife and four daughters went down to Nashville for an overnight Sunday. We got some lunch with a cousin and his family and journeyed home. I got home, put the girls to bed, got the luggage in, and settled down to check Facebook late that night, like people do.

Trump had tweeted: “Such a phony hurricane report by lightweight reporter @jonathancarl of @ABCWorldNews. I suggested yesterday at FEMA that, along with Florida, Georgia, South Carolina and North Carolina, even Alabama could possibly come into play, which WAS true. . .”

CARL: I’ve been mistaken for the journalist before, but never by the president of the United States. … You get pulled into this spectrum of vitriol and hatred. … I woke up that night and really felt the Lord saying: “Hey, there are some things here we can all learn from.” So I wrote my open letter: “Dear Mr. President, I’m a Casualty of Your Drive-By Tweeting War. We all are.” … He used the term “lightweight.” We are all lightweights in the big picture. There’s only one who gets it all right all the time.

By Wednesday, Sept. 4, Dorian had moved on from the Bahamas and was churning its way toward the Carolinas. Just before noon, the president decided to address the press in the Oval Office. He had a map showing a Dorian trajectory, which was embellished toward Alabama with a black marker, it seemed. At 1:26 p.m., the White House tweeted out video of the briefing.

DENNIS MERSEREAU, weather reporter, North Carolina: I was actually getting ready to walk out to the grocery store, and I was putting on my shoes as I was mindlessly scrolling through Twitter, I saw the White House’s tweet from the Hurricane Dorian briefing scroll through my feed. I normally ignore those things, but this one caught my eye because the hurricane map looked a bit weird. So I watched (the video), and my jaw dropped.

MEDINA (ex-NOAA): The president had the NOAA storm track map from maybe Aug. 31 or Sept. 1. It was Sept. 4, and he was using the wrong map. What if you’re out there in the world, you google “storm map,” and this is what you get?

MERSEREAU: I had to watch the video three or four more times, just to make sure it wasn’t a technical glitch, or some sort of pixilation. But then I realized - oh, my God, he really drew on it with a Sharpie. I screamed a couple of choice words that I’m sure my neighbors just loved. And I took a screenshot, and just fired off the tweet right then.

Mersereau wrote on Twitter: “The President of the United States altered a National Hurricane Center map with a sharpie to falsely extend the official forecast toward Alabama so he didn’t have to admit he was wrong in a tweet.”

The tweet went viral, and was eventually retweeted over 28,000 times. The public began to make memes off the Sharpie’d map. The media reported that falsifying a government weather report is a federal crime.

MEDINA: I was general counsel of NOAA. If I was sitting in NOAA, somebody would’ve brought (the Sharpie edit) to my attention and then I would’ve had the obligation to make it stop, as a government employee.

REP. STEVE COHEN (D-Tenn.): I watch a lot of MSNBC and CNN, so I watched it unfold on one of those newscasts.

JOE WALSH, Republican primary challenger to Trump: I was somewhere on the campaign trail and I saw it. Someone put in front of me: the image of him, and Alabama, and the Sharpie around Alabama.

GEORGE CONWAY, conservative lawyer and Trump critic: I was offline and didn’t see it until 6 p.m. that day. I was in a car, being driven to dinner somewhere, and started seeing references to a Sharpie on Twitter. I was very confused. I know Trump uses Sharpies, but I had no idea what it was about. Then I just saw the pictures.

WALSH: My first reaction was to shake my head and laugh.

CONWAY: I was stunned. But then I sat back and thought, “Oh, yeah, that’s something he’d do.”

COHEN: I found it hard to believe. My first thought was that (Trump) didn’t know the difference between Alabama and Georgia.

CONWAY: I did enjoy the memes.

MARY CAMPBELL, a search engine analyst in Wilmington, Delaware: I saw somebody had tweeted that he had actually added material to the map. So I saw that and, like a lot of other people, I said, “Wow, he could use the Sharpie to change a lot of things.”

CONWAY: People drawing the border wall and saying it’s all finished …

CAMPBELL: The border was the very first thing that came to mind. I went to Google images and put in the word ‘desert.’ I just picked one that looked good. … I just used black lines and saved.

BERARDELLI-KNOWLES (Bahamas): I didn’t know that was even going on. Nobody here had any idea what the news was saying. We couldn’t have cared less. We were just trying to pull people out who were stranded, who needed help.

MERSEREAU (weather reporter): I got a lot of spam, a lot of hate mail. But you know, it’s not about me, it’s about the integrity of weather forecasting.

WALSH: In a way, it encapsulates Trump. He’s pathological. I thought, even as I and other people laughed, “This isn’t just a stupid story, it’s a big story.”

BILL WELD, former Massachusetts governor and Republican primary challenger: We had just been discussing Sharpies for the previous two days, as it turns out. I was on the streets of Manchester, New Hampshire, campaigning and people wanted their baseballs signed. I had been signing baseballs on the street using a pen, a ballpoint, and the Sharpie signature is much more professional.

MATT SCHLAPP, Republican activist and Trump supporter: We were on the streets (in Hong Kong) with these young democracy protesters, talking about human freedoms and having a limited idea of government. … It was a little scary. They would fire rubber bullets into the crowd. People were getting their heads smashed.

WALSH: I talked about it with the team. They knew it really incensed me and wanted to make a big deal about it. It was about dishonesty. It was about a Sharpie. He drew it, he lied about it. So, boom, we decided, why don’t we put “Don’t Lie” on a Sharpie?

SCHLAPP: I follow a lot of news on Twitter, so I saw it. To be honest, mostly what I thought was: One of the most important stories in the globe is taking place, and American reporters are talking about Sharpies?

WELD: We started signing campaign literature with a Sharpie. We were thinking about Sharpies, about the benevolent uses of Sharpies. I had the upside uses of Sharpie present on my mind, and I remember thinking about “Sharpiegate”: what a waste of a useful product.

Newell Brands, the producer of Sharpie pens, did not respond to several requests for comment.

SCHLAPP: In Hong Kong, people were in the streets writing the names of their lawyers on their arms in Sharpie marker because they didn’t know if they were going to survive. … In their zeal to write every negative thing about Trump, (the media) were missing the real story. He’s the first president in 30 years giving (Hong Kong) hope that Beijing can change.

BERARDELLI-KNOWLES (Bahamas): Nobody was in front of a television. We didn’t even know where the storm went after it left the Bahamas. We were all exhausted, working 12 hours a day, doing everything we could to help.

GEORGE CONWAY: I got to dinner with a large number of people and everyone was making fun of the guy, as you do. As ridiculous as it was, and it was ridiculous, it showed exactly what his psychological state is.

SCHLAPP: There is no question that there are times the president is so engaged in pushing back on small stories he distracts people from these larger stories.

That evening, Trump tweeted a map of Dorian trajectories from Aug. 28, four days before his Alabama comment, and said: “This was the originally projected path of the Hurricane in its early stages. As you can see, almost all models predicted it to go through Florida also hitting Georgia and Alabama. I accept the Fake News apologies!”

MONICA MEDINA (ex-NOAA): The storm originally might have gone toward Alabama. He wasn’t wrong. He was out of date. And the out-of-dateness made it wrong. And continuing to talk about it causes confusion.

The next day, Thursday, Sept. 5, Dorian was off the coast of South Carolina and the president tweeted multiple times about Alabama. At 9:39 a.m., he tweeted: “Alabama was going to be hit or grazed, and then Hurricane Dorian took a different path (up along the East Coast). The Fake News knows this very well. That’s why they’re the Fake News!”

WALSH: It’s Day 2, and Day 3 and Day 4, and the president is doubling down, tripling down, quadrupling down.

REP. EDDIE BERNICE JOHNSON (D-Texas), chair of the House Committee on Science, Space and Technology: I thought (Trump) had made a mistake. But when he defended what he did, then that really went a step too far.

The president had no public events scheduled on Friday, Sept. 6, as Dorian strafed North Carolina as a Category 1 hurricane and NOAA released an unsigned statement about the Alabama matter. The statement referred to the Sept. 1 tweet from the Birmingham National Weather Service as “inconsistent with probabilities from the best forecast products available at the time.”

MEDINA (ex-NOAA): I was watching one of the MSNBC shows, and the story broke about it, and I was like “Oh, (curse word).” This is different. This is so much worse. This is so wrong. This is just a breach of protocol.

LAWS (NWS Birmingham): You would think we would be upset and devastated, but I just didn’t really get that feeling. (Staffers) were probably down a little bit about it, maybe, but at the same time they’re like, “We have a job to do.”

EVANS (American Meteorological Society): I had been in Denmark for a few days with my husband, and he follows Twitter. He said, “Have you seen what the president’s doing and what’s happening at NOAA?” I couldn’t believe it. I was gobsmacked.

MEDINA: If somebody had told me to issue this statement, I would have quit.

Over the weekend, Dorian dissipated, the president tweeted more about Alabama and played two rounds of golf at his club in Virginia, and the National Weather Service’s annual conference began in Huntsville, Alabama. The director of the Weather Service addressed the conference on Monday, Sept. 9.

LAWS: I would probably say there was 600 people. There wasn’t an empty seat anywhere. It was in a big, grand ballroom.

A GULF COAST METEOROLOGIST: You could definitely feel an element of tension throughout the whole (conference). At that point, things are happening so quickly in the news, and you’re trying to keep up and it’s tough. You just knew that something had to be said, but how was going to come out?

Louis Uccellini, director of the National Weather Service, said in his speech: “Let me be clear: The Birmingham office did this to stop public panic, to ensure public safety - the same goal as all the National Weather Service offices were working toward at that time.”

LAWS: That was a huge weight off everybody in the room, and probably across the agency. … It’s great to see directors come in here and say, “We’ve got your back, we believe in you, and you did the right thing.” There was a standing ovation. That’s never happened before here.

That day the New York Times reported that Secretary of Commerce Wilbur Ross threatened to fire managers at NOAA over the Birmingham tweet. The Washington Post later reported that Trump and the White House helped set this in motion. Trump denied this to reporters on Wednesday, Sept. 11.

TRUMP: No, I never did that. I never did that. It’s a hoax by the media. That’s just fake news.

Two chairwomen of House committees on science and oversight drafted a letter to Ross requesting information related to his department’s dealings with NOAA and Hurricane Dorian. The acting chief scientist of NOAA began investigating potential violations of scientific integrity.

JOHNSON (Texas congresswoman): I started to work on the letter (to Wilbur Ross) with the committee staff, because we felt a responsibility not to let this play out as a joke, to not to let this play out as if it was not serious.

MEDINA: I think they were so devastated by this, the rank-and-file folks (at NOAA). They work so hard. They work around the clock. They take their jobs incredibly seriously.

JOHNSON: I don’t want scientists to be operating under the fear of being reprimanded when they’re doing the best work they know how to do.

KATHY SULLIVAN, chief of NOAA under President Barack Obama, in a statement: Trust is like glass: shatters in an instant, with a single blow, and takes a long time to restore.

MEDINA: It’s kind of like the hurricane itself. There’s damage and now people have to rebuild.

BERARDELLI-KNOWLES (Bahamas): The damage is just catastrophic. We’re going to rebuild, but it is going to take a long time. It’s going to take a long time.

COHEN: I’m blessed to be in Congress at this time to try and bring some justice and sanity in what is a very bizarre presidency. … But there are times that I’m lulled into a sadness.

SCHLAPP: I could not have cared less if some meteorologist said some storm was gonna hit Alabama or miss, but what I cared about was people getting beaten up in the streets (in Hong Kong). We get so stuck in the silliness of coverage.

CONWAY: I did not discuss it with Kellyanne. There’s just nothing to say about it.

ELIZABETH VAN ANTWERP (Mobile Bay area): I would say that the president is not a meteorologist.

The Washington Post’s Avi Selk contributed to this report.

Related posts