Resignation calls over Trumps #sharpiegate row

Wilbur Ross attends the NOAA's 2019 Hurricane Season Outlook briefingImage copyright
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Image caption

Wilbur Ross attends the NOAA’s 2019 Hurricane Season Outlook briefing

US Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross has been urged to resign after reportedly threatening weather officials who contradicted President Donald Trump.

Mr Ross’ agency denied he intervened in #sharpiegate, the political storm over Mr Trump’s erroneous claim that Hurricane Dorian might hit Alabama.

Alabama was initially forecast to be hit by Dorian, but was not on its path by the time Mr Trump said so.

The hurricane has battered the Bahamas, killing at least 50 people.

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Getty Images

Image caption

The black loop appeared to have been added to include Alabama in the storm’s projected path

What is the row all about?

In an Oval Office briefing last Wednesday, Mr Trump updated the American public about the approaching storm, showing a six-day-old forecast map by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) from 29 August.

The map looked almost identical to the official NOAA map from that day, but the chart Mr Trump displayed had a black loop marked around Alabama that was not on the original version.

White House spokesman Hogan Gidley later confirmed the map had been altered with a black felt-tip pen, known as a sharpie in the US, but did not say who made the edit.

In the previous days, Mr Trump had repeatedly asserted that Alabama would be hit by the storm.

However, the National Weather Service (NWS) in Birmingham, Alabama, tweeted that the southern US state would “not see any impacts from Dorian”.

Journalists said Mr Trump was incorrect, irritating the president.

How did Wilbur Ross reportedly get involved?

The NWS and NOAA both fall under the US Department of Commerce, which Mr Ross oversees.

On Monday the New York Times reported that Mr Ross phoned from meetings in Greece last Friday threatening to sack top NOAA employees unless they publicly backed Mr Trump’s position.

The newspaper says the threat is what prompted an unsigned statement by NOAA later that day, saying that Hurricane Dorian “could impact Alabama” and criticising the Birmingham NWS tweet as “inconsistent with probabilities from the best forecast products available at the time”.

A spokesperson for the Department of Commerce said the New York Times story was false.

“Secretary Ross did not threaten to fire any NOAA staff over forecasting and public statements about Hurricane Dorian,” the spokesman said.

The Department of Commerce’s Office of Inspector General is examining NOAA’s statement on Friday, according to the New York Times.

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Media captionAerials show scale of destruction in the Bahamas caused by Hurricane Dorian

Who is calling for Wilbur Ross to resign?

Democratic lawmaker Don Beyer called for Mr Ross to step down over “his direct attacks on the scientists and federal employees, whom he threatened to fire for doing their jobs by accurately reporting the weather”.

The Virginia congressman called the episode “an embarrassing new low for a member of this [presidential] cabinet which has been historically venal and incompetent”.

Sierra Club, an environmental group, echoed calls for Mr Ross to go.

The organisation called the commerce secretary’s alleged intercession a “shameful abuse of power”, saying he had “threatened to instil panic simply to give cover for Trump”.

New York Democratic congressman Paul Tonko said Mr Ross had “put the safety of countless Americans at risk by compromising America’s hurricane warning system just to protect the president’s ego”.

Another Democratic lawmaker, Jim Himes of Connecticut, told CNN if the report is true “that would be the most blatant use of an official position in the service of the ego and the political fortunes of the president that we have ever seen”.

Republican Senator John Thune, who serves on the Senate Commerce Committee, did not join calls for Mr Ross to quit but said it would be inappropriate for the commerce secretary to threaten the public servants.

“We want the weather service to operate with integrity and without bias,” he told CNN.

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