WASHINGTON — The hurricane was accelerating away from the Mid-Atlantic coast. In the Bahamas, victims were picking through the devastation. In the Southeast, they were cleaning up debris. And in Washington, President Trump waged war over his forecasting skills.
On Friday, for the sixth straight day, Mr. Trump continued his relentless campaign to prove that he was right when he predicted that Hurricane Dorian could hit Alabama regardless of what the scientists said, a quest that has come to consume his White House and put his veracity to the test.
And once again, Mr. Trump’s government came to his aid. Late Friday afternoon, the parent agency of the National Weather Service issued a statement declaring that its Birmingham, Ala., office was wrong to dispute the president’s warning that Alabama “will most likely be hit” by the hurricane despite forecasts to the contrary.
“The Birmingham National Weather Service’s Sunday morning tweet spoke in absolute terms that were inconsistent with probabilities from the best forecast products available at the time,” the parent agency, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, or NOAA, said in the statement.
Neither the White House nor NOAA responded to inquiries about whether the statement was issued at the direction or in consultation with the president’s aides. But it followed a concerted effort by Mr. Trump and his team to use the levers of government to back up a presidential claim that has been widely discredited and ridiculed, including posting outdated weather maps and having his homeland security adviser issue a statement backing him.
“The Fake News Media was fixated on the fact that I properly said, at the beginnings of Hurricane Dorian, that in addition to Florida & other states, Alabama may also be grazed or hit,” he wrote. “They went Crazy, hoping against hope that I made a mistake (which I didn’t). Check out maps.”
“This nonsense has never happened to another President,” he added. “Four days of corrupt reporting, still without an apology.”
Never one to back down from a challenge, Mr. Trump has made Alabama the latest battlefield in his forever war with the news media, the opposition, the experts and the establishment — one more example of insisting on his version of reality over any other. Nuance is lost. Whatever merits there may have been to his original statement, he finds it impossible to back down or brush it off as imprecise wording. Where other presidents would have dropped the matter rather than give it air, Mr. Trump extended the story for nearly a week.
But even in an administration known for defying forecasts, the wayward prediction of an unpredictable president has dominated the national conversation, despite how little would seem to be at stake politically.
It started on Sunday when the president warned on Twitter that Alabama, among other states, could be hit by the storm “(much) harder than anticipated.”
In an attempt to head off panic, the Birmingham forecasters quickly sent out their own tweet, assuring residents that they were not, in fact, in harm’s way. “Alabama will NOT see any impacts from #Dorian,” the local office wrote. “We repeat, no impacts from Hurricane #Dorian will be felt across Alabama.”
Angry at the mockery that followed, particularly on cable television and social media, Mr. Trump has ever since sought to justify his contentions to the point that he even called on his homeland security secretary to display a map in the Oval Office that appeared to have been altered by a black Sharpie pen to suggest Alabama was in the potential path of the storm.
As so often happens in Washington, a serious dispute eventually devolved into fund-raising. Mr. Trump’s campaign sought to capitalize on the attention by offering to sell pens with the president’s signature on them; a set of five went for $15.
“Buy the official Trump marker, which is different than every other marker on the market, because this one has the special ability to drive @CNN and the rest of the fake news crazy!” Brad Parscale, the president’s campaign manager, tweeted, adding the hashtag: “#KeepMarkersGreat.”
Mr. Trump’s wrath at his critics, however, left the Birmingham forecasters caught in the path of a presidential storm. For five days, NOAA had no public objection to this conclusion. Only after Mr. Trump insisted on sticking by his disputed claim did NOAA finally weigh in — and no spokesperson attached a name to the statement.
The Birmingham office had no reaction to its dressing down on Friday. A man who answered the phone there referred questions to NOAA in Washington.
But others came to the office’s defense. James Spann, a popular TV meteorologist in Birmingham with more than 400,000 Twitter followers, publicly vouched for the professionalism of the forecasters.
“@NWSBirmingham has a brilliant staff of experienced atmospheric scientists that have helped to save countless lives in my state over the years,” Mr. Spann tweeted after the NOAA rebuke. “They were thrown under the bus today by their parent agency. I stand behind NWS Birmingham 100 percent.”
Dan Sobien, the president of the National Weather Service Employees Organization, called NOAA’s statement “utterly disgusting and disingenuous,” emphasizing that Weather Service employees had nothing to do with it.
Rear Adm. David W. Titley, a retired Navy officer who previously served as NOAA’s chief operating officer, was even more scathing about his former agency. “Perhaps the darkest day ever for @noaa leadership,” he tweeted. “Don’t know how they will ever look their workforce in the eye again. Moral cowardice.”
The president’s continuing efforts to vindicate his assertion has proved uncomfortable or bewildering in Alabama for allies and meteorologists alike. While Mr. Trump fueled a snowballing national news story, the state’s governor and members of Congress largely steered clear of the topic this week on social media, leaving it to local meteorologists to straighten out any confusion.
Brad Arnold, a storm chaser from Huntsville, Ala., said that his group had seen earlier models predicting that the storm could strike the state, but they held off on posting anything on their Facebook page because hurricane models can — and did — change quickly. Even after the president forecast the storm to include Alabama, Mr. Arnold said he did not get the usual onslaught of messages that come when a storm is on the way.
“There was no panic,” said Mr. Arnold, 30. “There were not people rushing to the grocery stores or going to get gas.”
Indeed, he said his friends were mostly joking about the national news ruckus on social media, including a separate episode in which a storm map on CNN mislabeled their state Mississippi. (While her boss criticized the news media for calling his prediction a mistake, the White House press secretary, Stephanie Grisham, redirected attention to the CNN map, posting a screenshot and quipping that the news outlet needed to “study up on U.S. geography.”)
Mr. Spann was among those weather professionals who wanted nothing to do with the politics even as they sought to correct the misimpression left by the president. After he retweeted Mr. Trump’s post with a correction, Mr. Spann pushed back against critics who claimed that he was bashing the president.
“I have zero interest in politics,” he tweeted. “Dorian will not affect Alabama in any way. That is not a political statement.”
Jason Simpson, the chief meteorologist at WHNT, the CBS affiliate in Huntsville, said he tried to reel in partisan commentary on his Facebook page after he saw other posts getting “a little bit incendiary on the sides.”
Weather is complicated, he said in an interview on Friday. “My point was, you should never listen to a politician for the weather, anyway,” Mr. Simpson said. “That’s why we have the National Weather Service.”
And what was the weather in Alabama this week? “Bone dry,” he said. “It hasn’t rained in six days.”