To the annals of American political scandal, we must now add Sharpiegate.
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In the Oval Office at lunchtime on Wednesday, Donald Trump held a briefing on Hurricane Dorian. At one point, the president held up a National Hurricane Center (NHC) map from 29 August, displaying the hurricane’s track and intensity.
Bizarrely, someone had apparently used a Sharpie, a kind of marker pen, to add a black loop falsely extending the hurricane’s path from Florida to Alabama. It was apparently a belated effort to justify Trump’s previous baseless claim that the latter state could be affected.
The hamfisted, homespun addition triggered uproar on social media and a frenzy of speculation over whether the president himself, or perhaps some lackey eager to impress, was responsible.
Altering official government weather forecasts is against the law.
Trump denied all knowledge. According to the Washington Post, when he was asked about the doctored map later on Wednesday, Trump said his briefings had included a “95% chance probability” that Alabama would be hit.
Asked if the chart had been drawn on, he insisted: “I don’t know, I don’t know.”
Over the weekend, as Dorian bore down on and then brutally struck the Bahamas, the president issued a torrent of tweets. One mistakenly warned that Alabama would be impacted, potentially spreading panic.
Just 20 minutes later, the National Weather Service in Birmingham, Alabama, tweeted: “Alabama will NOT see any impacts from #Dorian. We repeat, no impacts from Hurricane #Dorian will be felt across Alabama. The system will remain too far east.”
But Trump is not one to admit he was wrong, whether over crowd sizes or how much of his border wall has been built.
In his Oval Office remarks, the president argued that on the “original chart”, Dorian was going to hit Florida directly “and that would have affected a lot of other states”.
“But that was the original chart,” he said.
The original NHC map, showing the probable path of the storm, can still be seen online.
Some saw the episode as the latest in the Trump administration’s war on reality. Bill Kristol, the director of Defending Democracy Together and a conservative critic of Trump, posted sarcastically: “Who among us hasn’t altered a National Hurricane Center forecast with a Sharpie?”
On Wednesday night, apparently stung by the criticism, Trump tweeted another hurricane map. This one showed numerous, multicoloured lines projecting the path of Dorian. Some of the lines reach into Alabama. The map has a “South Florida Water Management District” logo in the bottom corner.
The president wrote: “This was the originally projected path of the Hurricane in its early stages. As you can see, almost all models predicted it to go through Florida also hitting Georgia and Alabama. I accept the Fake News apologies!”
But the map is dated 28 August at 08.06 EDT. Trump sent his tweet about Alabama on 1 September, by which time forecasts made clear it was not in danger.
The map also clearly carries the disclaimer: “NHC advisories and county emergency statements supersede this product. This graphic should complement, not replace, NHC discussions.”