Commerce Dept denies report Ross threatened to fire top NOAA staff

The Department of Commerce is denying a media report that Commerce Secretary Wilbur RossWilbur Louis RossTrump trade adviser pushes back on reports of US-China tariff deal China, US agree to reduce tariffs amid trade talks, Beijing says Income for poorest Americans fell faster than previously thought: study MORE threatened to fire top staffers at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) after officials contradicted President TrumpDonald John TrumpGOP divided over impeachment trial strategy Official testifies that Bolton had 'one-on-one meeting' with Trump over Ukraine aid Louisiana governor wins re-election MORE's claim that Alabama could be affected by Hurricane Dorian. 

"The New York Times story is false. Secretary Ross did not threaten to fire any NOAA staff over forecasting and public statements about Hurricane Dorian," a spokesperson told The Hill. 

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The denial came just hours after the Times published a report about Ross's efforts to fight off any perception that the National Weather Service's (NWS) Birmingham branch contradicted the president as Dorian headed toward the East Coast.

The Times, citing three people familiar with the discussion, reported that Ross had warned acting NOAA Administrator Neil Jacobs that political staff would be fired if the situation wasn't resolved. 

Trump faced mounting scrutiny last week from meteorologists and lawmakers after issuing a warning on Twitter that said Alabama would be hit "harder than anticipated." The statement prompted the NWS's Birmingham branch to tweet just hours later that the storm would not affect any part of the state. 

Trump persistently defended his stance in the ensuing days and at one point displayed a map in the Oval Office that appeared to include a marker-drawn addition to show that Dorian could hit Alabama. 

Just two days later, Ross reportedly contacted Jacobs and told him to fix the perception that the agency had pushed back against Trump's claims about the hurricane. After Jacobs objected, he was told that political staff at NOAA would be dismissed if the situation wasn't resolved, the Times reported. 

NOAA later released an unsigned statement affirming Trump's claims and disavowing the tweet from the NWS's Birmingham branch about the hurricane. 

Reps. Don Beyer (D-Va.) and Paul TonkoPaul David TonkoOvernight Energy: Trump officials suspend oil, gas production on Utah plots after lawsuit | California bucks Trump on lightbulb rollback | Scientists join Dems in panning EPA's 'secret science' rule Scientists join Democrats in panning EPA's 'secret science' rule Advocates step up efforts for horse racing reform bill after more deaths MORE (D-N.Y.) responded to the report about Ross by immediately demanding his resignation. 

"Reporting now suggests that Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross put the safety of countless Americans at risk by compromising America’s hurricane warning system just to protect the President’s ego. If these reports are true, Secretary Ross needs to take responsibility and resign," Tonko said in a statement. 

NOAA's move to back Trump's assessment led to fierce pushback within NWS quarters. 

“These are the people risking their lives flying into hurricanes and putting out forecasts that save lives. Never before has their management undercut their scientifically sound reasoning and forecasts,” Dan Sobien, who heads the NWS Employees Organization, which represents thousands working under NOAA, told The Daily Beast

Craig McLean, NOAA's acting chief scientist, on Monday said that he would be looking into whether the agency's move constituted a violation of policies and ethics.

McLean called NOAA's response “political” and a “danger to public health and safety,” according to an email obtained by The Washington Post and later verified by The Hill.