Buried within Title 18 of the United States Code is what seems like an obscure law. Section 2074 makes it a federal crime to “knowingly” give a false weather report, punishable by a fine and up to 90 days in prison. When this law was enacted under President Harry Truman, one could imagine a situation in which criminals try to con victims into buying goods by scaring them about a fictitious impending storm. Although such a scenario is harder to imagine in today’s world of cable TV and the Internet, Section 2074 is still a worthwhile law to have on the books. Extreme weather is serious business and people need to know with confidence when it will—and won’t—affect them.
This past week, we witnessed something remarkable that began when Donald Trump tweeted on Sunday that Alabama could take a major hit from Hurricane Dorian: “In addition to Florida – South Carolina, North Carolina, Georgia, and Alabama, will most likely be hit (much) harder than anticipated. Looking like one of the largest hurricanes ever. Already category 5. BE CAREFUL! GOD BLESS EVERYONE!” This appears to have been a gaffe, no doubt inspired by a combination of Trump’s shaky knowledge of geography and his trademark recklessness. Assuming Trump had no bad intentions when issuing that tweet, he would not have violated Section 2074 because he did not “knowingly” falsify a weather report.
But Trump has since doubled down on his Alabama claim, effectively insisting that he “knowingly” gave what is clearly a false weather report. This madness reached new heights yesterday when Trump presented a falsified map of Dorian’s trajectory and tweeted a map of Dorian’s spaghetti models from August 28—ridiculously outdated by the time Trump began his Alabama folly on September 1.
The National Weather Service, which provides weather forecasts and warnings, is a federal agency within the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), which is a branch of the Commerce Department. The President of the United States is supposed to oversee the Commerce Department, not interfere with it because he is dealing with unresolved issues from his childhood. Section 2074 is a necessary law, but there is no question it was not conceived out of fear that a future President of the United States might counter his own National Weather Service because he suffers from the world’s most public case of chronic pettiness.
Trump could have easily cleaned up his gaffe by following up with something along the lines of how he has so much on his mind and monitors so many storms and, though Alabama is often in the crosshairs of storms, fortunately Alabama is safe this time around. Instead, Trump has twisted himself in knots simply to avoid having to admit that he is a mortal being who makes mistakes like everyone else. In the meantime, Trump’s narcissistic priorities have caused him to commit yet another federal crime and hand Congress a new ground for impeachment.