WASHINGTON -- A controversy that once appeared comical -- President Donald Trump's decision to display a crudely doctored weather map in the Oval Office -- has taken on more serious overtones, with questions about how far the president will push U.S. government agencies to cover up for his errors.
Trump drew derision for refusing to acknowledge that he made a mistake when he said Alabama was threatened by Hurricane Dorian. Behind the scenes, however, administration officials were applying pressure to tamp down contradictory facts.
The message was relayed from acting White House Chief of Staff Mick Mulvaney to Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross, whose department oversees weather forecasts. Ross reportedly threatened to fire top officials at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, known as NOAA.
The goal, a senior administration official said, was "to get this behind us and fixed."
Rather than accomplish that goal, the administration's moves have only inflamed the situation.
Although a spokesperson for the Department of Commerce has denied that Ross threatened to fire anybody, the inspector general has begun a review of whether rules intended to safeguard scientific integrity were broken. Congressional Democrats, who have already lined up enough investigations to last several presidencies, have vowed to launch another inquiry.
The rules on scientific integrity were intended to safeguard research on controversial topics like climate change. Monica Medina, a former administrator at NOAA during the Obama administration and an environmental advocate, said she "never thought that they would have to be using it for a weather forecast."
"This is just beyond anything we could have imagined," she said.
The episode is an example of how Trump can transform a fleeting mistake into a potentially more damaging scandal in an attempt to shield himself from even minor embarrassment. It's also a reminder of how he's politicized normally nonpartisan government functions -- such as projecting the path of a deadly natural disaster -- and turned them into loyalty tests in which his version of reality is the only acceptable one.
"We're seeing this administration grinding down the resistance to political influence," said Brendan Nyhan, a professor of government at Dartmouth University. "I don't think it's unreasonable to fear that people might put less trust in the government going forward."