Congress investigates whether administration tried to bolster Trump's Hurricane Dorian claim on Alabama

Ledyard King and Michael Collins, USA TODAY

WASHINGTON – President Donald Trump on Wednesday denied news reports that he instructed his administration to rebuke weather forecasters for contradicting his claim that Hurricane Dorian was a threat to Alabama.

"No, I never did that. I never did that," he said in the Oval Office. "That’s a whole hoax by the fake news media, when they talk about the hurricane and when they talk about Florida and when they talk about Alabama. That’s just fake news. … It’s a fake story."

 Two congressional committees are investigating whether top administration officials acted improperly after Trump said Sept. 1 that Dorian could impact Alabama – long after the state was no longer in the monstrous storm's potential path.

Rep. Eddie Bernice Johnson, D-Texas, who chairs the House Science, Space and Technology Committee, sent a letter Wednesday to Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross demanding information related to the department’s involvement in the president's claim and the steps officials took to defend him.

Johnson seeks documents, records and correspondence related to the president's claim Sept. 1 as Dorian approached Florida and a statement Friday from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (which is under Commerce) defending the president.

Democrats want Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross to turn over records on President Trump's statements about 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," Johnson's letter to Ross says. "It is essential that these forecasts remain free of political influence and suppression."

The letter was co-signed by Rep. Mikie Sherrill, D-N.J., who chairs the panel's subcommittee on Oversight and Investigation. Tuesday, House Natural Resources Committee Chairman Raúl Grijalva, D-Ariz., sent a similar request to Ross.

On Sept. 1, Trump tweeted out a warning that Alabama was one of four states "most likely to be hit (much) harder than anticipated" by Dorian even though forecasts showed the storm heading north along the Atlantic coast.

Twenty minutes after Trump's tweet, the Birmingham branch of the National Weather Service tweeted to clarify that Alabama was not in the pathway of Hurricane Dorian. 

More: NWS corrects Trump on Hurricane Dorian hitting Alabama

"Alabama will NOT see any impacts from #Dorian," the NWS wrote. "We repeat, no impacts from Hurricane #Dorian will be felt across Alabama."

Last week, Trump insisted he was correct that the storm was projected to affect Alabama.

He kept tweeting about the subject and brought it up during an Oval Office briefing on the storm, during which he held up a map of Dorian’s forecast path to show that Alabama had been in its path when he tweeted out the warning.

More: Trump doubles down on debunked Alabama comments, holds up map with added circle

President Donald Trump argues that Alabama was in the forecast path of Hurricane Dorian when he tweeted his warning.

News reports said acting White House Chief of Staff Mick Mulvaney directed Ross last week to have NOAA publicly counter the forecasters by saying Alabama was at risk to bolster the president's claim. Ross threatened to fire officials at the National Weather Service over the issue, according to The New York Times.

Friday, NOAA issued a statement defending the president.

"Information provided by NOAA and the National Hurricane Center to President Trump and the wider public demonstrated that tropical-storm-force winds from Hurricane Dorian could impact Alabama," it reads. The National Weather Service tweet "spoke in absolute terms that were inconsistent with probabilities from the best forecast products available at the time."

More: Trump and Joe Walsh fundraise off #SharpieGate as NOAA issues statement

Officials at the Commerce Department did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Former top officials with NOAA accused the agency of choosing politics over science.

Bill Read, director of the National Hurricane Center under President George W. Bush, said on Facebook the NOAA statement showed either an embarrassing lack of understanding of forecasting or “a lack of courage on their part by not supporting the people in the field who are actually doing the work. Heartbreaking."

'Disgusting': Former NOAA officials critical of defense of Trump's Hurricane Dorian claim on Alabama

Members of Congress called for Ross to resign.

"People across this country depend on accurate, factual weather reporting, especially in times of natural disasters like hurricanes," Rep. Sean Casten, D-Ill., said Tuesday. "The only factor in issuing weather predictions should be science, not the political whims of a president and his administration. People gather their loved ones and flee their homes in fear when they hear about these storms, and it is extremely concerning that Secretary Ross would threaten to fire scientists for simply stating the facts."

Candidate criticism: Bernie Sanders says Trump weather map incident shows 'authoritarian' impulses

Contributing: Christal Hayes

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Trump denies pressure exerted on NOAA to bolster false Dorian claim