Remarkable development here in the Alabama imbroglio. The headline is that Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross, one of the most corrupt of President Trump’s Cabinet secretaries, threatened to fire NOAA leadership over the Alabama dispute. (I hesitate even call it a “dispute.”) What struck me more is that administration officials are putting out word that staffers at the Birmingham office of the National Weather Service were simply trying to embarrass the President rather than acting out of concern for public safety. In the Times’ words: “That official suggested the Twitter post by the Birmingham forecasters had been motivated by a desire to embarrass the president more than concern for the safety of people in Alabama.”
This entire dispute is so stupid, so frivolous and ridiculous, that it’s easy to just dismiss it as another Trump shiny object. But it is actually rooted in something deeper and more ominous. There’s what the President says, whether true, whether on purpose. And everyone has to fall in line — government scientists, government safety officials, everybody.
There’s something very stark and ominous here. Ground level government scientists and weather officials, who play a critical role in public safety, are doing just what they’re supposed to: make sure people have the most accurate information about the weather. They’re not just contradicted. They’re accused of being the President’s enemies.
This is how authoritarianism works, folks. Everything, from the foreign policy to the weather report, must bend to the will of the dictator.
And if you think I’m being alarmist by calling this administration authoritarian and dictatorial, look at what happened when the acting head of Customs and Border Patrol tried to offer humanitarian solace to Bahamians seeking refuge from Hurricane Dorian.
Early Monday afternoon, acting Customs and Border Protection head Mark Morgan offered some peace of mind to Bahamians seeking humanitarian relief in the United States in the wake of Hurricane Dorian, following the news that some were turned away for not having visas.
“This is a humanitarian mission,” Morgan assured. “If your life is in jeopardy and you’re in the Bahamas … you’re going to be allowed to come to the United States, whether you have travel documents or not.” He said the processing would be handled expeditiously.
Then President Trump offered a very different message.
In a later Q&A with reporters, Trump emphasized that “very bad people” could exploit the process and warned against welcoming Bahamians.
“We have to be very careful,” Trump said. “Everybody needs totally proper documentation. Because, look, the Bahamas had some tremendous problems with people going to the Bahamas that weren’t supposed to be there.”
The president added, “I don’t want to allow people that weren’t supposed to be in the Bahamas to come into the United States — including some very bad people and very bad gang members.”
So, shortly after Morgan said people didn’t need to have documents, Trump said they did. And shortly after Morgan emphasized a quick process, Trump suggested it would need to be very thorough.
The president’s comments shouldn’t be a surprise. This is his default response, after all, to accepting people into the United States on humanitarian grounds. He did it during the 2016 campaign, arguing against welcoming refugees from Syria and even calling for a complete ban on Muslim immigration. When he came into office, he privately railed against a deal between the Obama administration and Australia on taking in other refugees.
More recently, this has been Trump’s attitude toward asylum seekers, suggesting that gang members and even terrorists are exploiting the process to gain access to the United States.
Trump emphasized Monday that, “believe it or not,” many parts of the Bahamas were not hit hard by Dorian, suggesting the humanitarian need isn’t that great. The capital of Nassau and southern parts of the Bahamas sustained significantly less damage.
His comments, notably, suggest not just that some refugees are gang members but that they might pose other problems. He even seems to suggest that people might have gone to the Bahamas so they could pose as refugees to gain admission to the United States. Trump has often spoken in this manner about potential terrorists. It’s not clear whether he was saying they went to the Bahamas before the hurricane or somehow got there afterward.
The Bahamas, notably, contain many people of Haitian descent — as many as 1 in 10 residents — and they tend to be among the island nation’s poorest residents. Trump has in the past privately referred to Haiti as a “shithole country” while deriding protections for immigrants from it.
Other Republicans — particularly in Florida — have taken a more compassionate tone when it comes to welcoming Bahamians. “As hundreds of thousands of Bahamians seek refuge or start to rebuild after Hurricane Dorian, we cannot have the kind of confusion that occurred last night in Freeport,” Sen. Rick Scott (R-Fla.) said. Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) has encouraged Trump to waive some visa requirements.
This is on the level with any tinpot despotism you can come up with: people who have lost virtually everything and depending on the grace and generosity of a country that was founded by refugees is now turning them away because they didn’t have the foresight to apply for a visa when a tropical storm turned into a Category 5 in one day.
This isn’t just authoritarianism; it’s just plain cruelty.