The tone of the entire Trump presidency was captured this week with the simple swipe of a black Sharpie.
An ill-timed, inaccurate but well-intentioned Twitter warning from Presidential Donald Trump at the start of the week extended into a five-day presidential feud by Thursday, transforming a forgettable fact check of his words into an epic storm of attacks as the president repeatedly doubled down and dug in.
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Trump’s latest move of promulgating false information, blaming the media for the coverage of it and then subsequently turning that controversy into a seemingly pointless multiday story reminded current and former White House aides, advisers and Trump allies of all the times in business and government he has leaned on the same playbook of never, ever backing down: whether it was the value of his real estate business or the crowd size at his inauguration or his statements about Chinese tariffs.
“There are a lot of statements he makes to protect his base, but this is not him protecting his base. His base does not care about the hurricane,” said Barbara Res, a former executive vice president of the Trump Organization, who worked for Trump on and off from 1978 until 1998. “This is a personal thing. He just can’t be wrong.”
Thursday marked the fifth day that Trump was fixated on the idea that the state of Alabama was in the path of deadly Hurricane Dorian, which devastated the Bahamas and is now off the southeast coast of the U.S.
Since Trump canceled a weekend trip to Poland to monitor the weather threat, news about Hurricane Dorian dominated the president’s already prolific Twitter feed. He’s retweeted information from national TV news networks about the perceived strength of the storm, satellite images from the National Weather Service and short videos of him attending FEMA briefings about Hurricane Dorian. The flood of information has given Americans the sense that the president is both closely monitoring the hurricane but also that his involvement is at the center of it.
His fact feud started Sunday with a presidential Twitter warning mentioning Alabama among the states likely to be hit “much harder than anticipated.”
The National Weather Service office in Birmingham quickly corrected him online, writing on Twitter: “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 referenced Alabama again Sunday at an in-person FEMA briefing, then started attacking the media over it and kept stoking it on Twitter in the days that followed.
Trump referenced Alabama again in person on Wednesday with some force, showing off a hurricane map — clumsily doctored with a black marker — that extended the path of the storm into Alabama.
When asked by reporters how the Sharpie marker ended up on the printed map, Trump said: “I don’t know. I don’t know. I don’t know.”
As the controversy escalated with “Sharpiegate” trending on Twitter, Trump tweeted out an early map of the storm — issued days before the president’s first Alabama tweet — that did not come from the National Hurricane Center: “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!”
Just as the backlash over the hurricane gaffe appeared to die down on Thursday, Trump revived it by tweeting that “Alabama was going to be hit or grazed, and then Hurricane Dorian took a different path (up along the East Coast). The Fake News knows this very well. That’s why they’re the Fake News!”
The nation’s meteorologists saw the extended presidential eruption as an unhelpful diversion from a serious threat. The National Hurricane Center’s latest estimate on Thursday afternoon showed Dorian approaching the coast of South Carolina and then hovering over or near the North Carolina coast Thursday night or Friday.
“There is a potentially life-threatening hurricane headed for the Carolinas, and any distraction from making people aware of the potential consequences is not doing anyone a favor,” said Dan Sobien, president of the National Weather Service Employees Organization. “This is a distraction from what the official government message should be right now.”
Sobien said the union representing the National Weather Service has fielded numerous calls over the past 24 hours from managers from the weather service, private-sector businesses and union members asking how the National Weather Service can stop the president from continuing to repeat confusing information — or worse, undermining the fact-based reports from the Miami-based hurricane forecasters. They issue regularly scheduled hurricane reports at least four times a day.
“What is most important is that people listen to and trust the National Weather Service,” Sobien said. “I would hate it if someone from the coast of North Carolina might have gotten a mixed message.”
One senior administration official said Trump kept talking about Alabama in the path of the hurricane because the state had been on a map cone by the National Weather Service and FEMA during a presidential briefing in the early days of in the storm. It is still unclear who drew the now-infamous black Sharpie line on the map displayed in the Oval Office on Wednesday, a marking that extended the potential path of the hurricane to Alabama.
“Had it ripped across Florida, that’s where it was going,” the official said. “So far, U.S. lives and property have been spared from what could have been worse.”
And on Thursday evening, the White House released a testimonial on official letterhead from the president’s homeland security and counterterrorism adviser, Rear Adm. Peter J. Brown, about his storm briefings. Brown said the president’s comments were based on a forecast showing the possibility of tropical storm force winds in southeastern Alabama through Monday morning. (Official forecasts regarding wind in Alabama had diminished long before the president’s warning.)
For current and former administration officials, the “Sharpiegate” controversy echoed a movie they’ve all seen many times before — and long ago grew immune to.
It started with Trump’s inauguration and the president harping on the crowd size, even as photographs showed empty bleachers and a National Mall scene not as full as Trump would have liked in comparison to his predecessor’s inauguration.
More recently, the same has happened for Trump’s tariffs on China, whose economic burden the president insists is borne entirely by China. (American consumers, businesses, farmers and Wall Street are feeling the effects, too, according to multiple economic data points and forecasts.)
Even in his business days, Trump would repeat statements executives at his organization knew were false, Res said — like telling people Princess Diana was going to take an apartment in Trump Tower, or inflating numbers when he was trying to make a sale.
“He would tell the staff his ridiculous lies, and after a while, no one believed a single word he would say,” Res said, adding that she never saw Trump back down in public from a misleading statement.
During the early days of Trump’s presidency, aides often would rush into the Oval Office and try to tell the president not to convey information a certain way or to inform him a fact was inaccurate. But aides soon learned Trump would inevitably tweet about it again anyway.
“It was clear it was a futile effort,” said one former senior administration official. “He has his own reality, and he will maintain that reality regardless of facts or evidence. My impression is that most people have given up on this.”
White House aides on Thursday mostly just shrugged and carried on with their day, so accustomed have they grown to the president’s operating style.