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WASHINGTON — A congressional committee opened an inquiry on Wednesday into a report that the secretary of commerce, Wilbur L. Ross Jr., coerced the head of a federal science agency into supporting President Trump’s erroneous statements about Hurricane Dorian.
In a letter to Mr. Ross, top officials of the House Committee on Science, Space and Technology demanded documents and information related to an unusual, unsigned statement that the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration issued on Friday that was perceived as rebuking its own scientists for contradicting President Trump’s claim that Alabama was in the path of Hurricane Dorian.
“We are deeply disturbed by the politicization of NOAA’s weather forecast activities for the purpose of supporting incorrect statements by the president,” Representative Eddie Bernice Johnson, the chairwoman of the committee, along with Representative Mikie Sherrill, the chairman of its oversight panel, wrote.
A Commerce Department spokesman denied the reports and said in an emailed statement, “Secretary Ross did not threaten to fire any NOAA staff over forecasting and public statements about Hurricane Dorian.”
On Sept. 1, Mr. Trump wrote on Twitter that Dorian would hit Alabama “harder than anticipated.” A few minutes later, the National Weather Service office in Birmingham, Ala., which is part of NOAA, posted on Twitter that “Alabama will NOT see any impacts from Dorian. We repeat, no impacts from Hurricane Dorian will be felt across Alabama.” (Alabama was not struck by the hurricane.)
Then, early last Friday, Mr. Ross, whose department has authority over NOAA, phoned Neil Jacobs, the acting head of NOAA, telling him that the political staff at the agency would be fired if the situation was not fixed, according to three people familiar with the conversation. Later that day, NOAA issued the unsigned statement that contradicted its Birmingham office, calling its statement “inconsistent with probabilities from the best forecast products available at the time.”
That NOAA statement led to an uproar among scientists, who charged that the administration was politicizing the weather service.
The House committee is now the second panel looking into the episode, but the first to take up the issue of Mr. Ross’s role, first reported by The New York Times.
The Commerce Department’s inspector general has opened a separate inquiry “examining the circumstances surrounding the NOAA statement.” The inspector general’s office has asked NOAA staff members to provide documents related to that statement by Friday, according to communications reviewed by The New York Times.
In addition to emails, memos, text messages and records of phone calls, the lawmakers on the House Science Committee asked Mr. Ross to answer a number of questions, including whether any representative of the Executive Office of the President directed NOAA to issue the Sept. 6 statement or specify the language in it.
They also reminded Mr. Ross of statements that he made under oath in his confirmation hearing that he would not interfere with science, particularly at NOAA, which in addition to weather forecasting is the agency responsible for understanding and predicting changes in the earth’s climate.
“Science should be done by scientists,” Mr. Ross testified in that January 2017 hearing. “I support the release of factual scientific data.”