Why isn't a bigger deal being made about the scandals involving President Donald Trump's secretary of commerce, investor Wilbur Ross?
This article first appeared on Salon.
Although Forbes broke a story earlier this week about Ross allegedly betting against a company's stock after being contacted by journalists about his background with that firm, the most comprehensive and succinct summary of the scandals surrounding Ross came from this piece by ProPublica.
There’s a chance you missed it amid the other news, but Forbes had a blockbuster story about Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross. It turns out, Ross bet against the stock of a company after journalists had contacted him with questions about his connections to the firm. Using inside information in stock trades is illegal. Ross has denied he profited from the bet against the stock.
And that’s only one of the revelations from Forbes’ story. “Trump, Inc.” spoke to reporter Dan Alexander about what else he found. Ross transferred many of his assets to a family trust last fall. Among those assets: an auto parts firm owned jointly with a Chinese-government-owned entity, and a stake in a shipping company also owned in part by Russian oligarchs.
Fortunately, the ethics watchdog group Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington has sent a letter to Deputy Attorney General Rod J. Rosenstein and Acting Director of the Office of Government Ethics David J. Apol requesting an investigation of Ross's actions, according to The Washington Post. Specifically they want to learn more about whether Ross lied about divesting his stock from Invesco, the firm he ran before becoming Secretary of Commerce, as well as to learn more about the circumstances surrounding Ross's decision to sell shares of the shipping firm Navigator Holdings.
Ross himself appeared on the CBNC show "Squawk Box" on Thursday to refute the accusations.
"Well first of all, the holdings to which they're referring have all been divested, so it's at best ancient news," Ross declared. "Everything that's been done has been done in compliance with the Office of Government Ethics. So these are people second-guessing everything..."
After Ross was questioned about whether his family and relatives would benefit from the trusts that were established with his assets, which in theory could still pose a conflict of interest for him, Ross insisted that this wasn't the case.
"Well, that's simply not true. We've divested of the assets," Ross told his hosts. "I have no control over the purchases and sales within the trusts. We're not income beneficiaries. We're not equity beneficiaries. I have no economic interests in those trusts. But many of the assets were not put into the trusts anyway. It was only the ones that were very difficult to sell. Everything that was readily salable was sold. So the idea of trusts that meet very specified criteria has been part of government for a very, very long time. It's not something peculiar to the Trump administration. It is true of all prior administrations so people may say 'Oh well, tut tut.' The fact is that that's the established practice."
He also denied that he had any investment-based connections to Russia.
"I don't have any investments in Russia. I never have," Ross insisted. "What they're doing is innuendo. A company that I was invested in happened to have a Russian shareholder. Another company happened to do business with some companies in Russia, a shipping company. They take little tiny things and make them into something that they are not. And worst of all is that they don't pretend to really do the research. They just make these wild claims."
When "Squawk Box" asked him specifically about the accusation that he had engaged in financial activity based on inside knowledge, he denied it.
"Well first of all, I began selling Navigator six months before that," Ross told his hosts. "So this is not the first sale of Navigator that was made. What came about: These were shares that were originally part of the director compensation program. And some of them never really found their way physically to me. So when I found that there were some more shares than what I had sold months earlier, I got them moved into an account so I could sell them. It takes a while to effect the transfer and under the New York Stock Exchange rules, which is where Navigator, you've got to deliver within a couple of days."
He added, "So to make sure I didn't violate the rule, it was technically a short sale."
When Salon contacted CREW on Wednesday about the Ross story, their press secretary Aaron Rodriguez was emphatic about how they were disturbed by the story.
"It is deeply troubling that Secretary Ross seems to have found a way to further profit from his own corruption scandal. This issue certainly needs to be closely examined to determine if ethics laws were violated," Rodriguez told Salon by email.
Corey Goldstone, media strategist at the nonpartisan election watchdog organization, the Campaign Legal Center (CLC), expressed similar thoughts.
"Secretary Ross appears to have made a false statement when he signed his ethics form attesting to divestiture of certain assets," Goldstone told Salon by email. "It is important for cabinet-level secretaries to be truthful in their ethics disclosures so that the public can be confident that they are acting in good faith on behalf of the American people, rather than to enhance their bottom line."
There are two possible reasons why the Ross scandal has not been more prominently featured in the news cycle. The first is that human rights stories like that of the Trump administration seizing children from undocumented immigrant parents at the border have been more pressing and have thus received more attention. The second is that, with scandals afflicting other Trump administration figures like Environmental Protection Agency head Scott Pruitt and Secretary of Housing and Urban Development Ben Carson (to say nothing of the president himself), it may very well be that the press and public are suffering from scandal fatigue.
None of that, of course, would make Ross's actions acceptable if he is indeed guilty of abusing his public position to financially benefit on a personal level.