Few Americans have probably ever heard of Wilbur Ross, the octogenarian former businessman who is now US Commerce secretary.
It’s a shame, because Ross’s record of public corruption and grifting deserves far more attention than it’s received. That more Americans are not aware of his fulsome body of work in this area is yet one more example of how deeply Trump’s public corruption has taken hold in Washington.
Over the last several months, Forbes investigative reporter Dan Alexander has laid out one astounding story after another detailing the depths of Ross’s venality and corruption.
In June, he reported that while in office, Ross had kept financial stakes in companies “co-owned by the Chinese government, a shipping firm tied to Vladimir Putin’s inner circle (and) a Cypriot bank reportedly caught up in the Robert Mueller investigation.”
Forbes also found that Ross lied when he submitted a sworn statement to federal officials promising to divest himself of these key financial holdings.
Most amazing of all, Forbes discovered that when news stories first emerged last fall showing Ross’s connection to the Putin-connected shipping firm, he shorted the company’s stock, on the assumption that its price would drop (which it modestly did, earning him a small profit).
In July, Alexander reported that during Ross’s first few months in office, the secretary repeatedly held meetings with companies that had direct connections to his personal financial holdings.
He met with officials in Greece, “while holding an interest in a major Greek bank.” He sat down with Brazilian officials while maintaining “investments in a Brazilian auto parts company.” He broke bread with the heads of “state-controlled funds from Qatar, Japan and Singapore, all of whom had invested money in his private equity firm.”
Then earlier this week, Forbes revealed that Ross is not just a greedy, ethically corrupt liar . . . he’s also a world-class grifter.
According to Forbes, Ross is alleged to have siphoned or stolen more than $120 million from business partners and customers. Forbes recounted accusations against Ross that included “taking handfuls of Sweet ’N Low packets from a nearby restaurant, so he didn’t have to go out and buy some for himself,” and not paying workers who had done work at his house in the Hamptons. One would imagine that the latest transgression would have been most appealing to President Trump, considering his own legacy of stiffing contractors who did work on his casinos.
Yet, Ross has survived. Indeed, Forbes’ reporting has received little outside media or congressional attention.
It’s not hard to figure out why. The first Forbes story hit at the same that the media was intensely focused on Scott Pruitt’s litany of abuses and the implementation of the president’s family separation policy. The Commerce Department is probably the least interesting or essential Cabinet agency. Also, Ross’s thievery — while substantial — doesn’t quite have the same news appeal as Pruitt’s tales of tactical pants, moisturizing lotion, and soundproof booths.
But perhaps the most obvious reason is that rich people being greedy and using their public perch to fatten themselves is, in our current political moment, not really news. The president is earning millions from his Washington, D.C. hotel, likely in violation of the Constitution’s emoluments clause. He’s using his position to promote his businesses, and the Trump Organization is raking in money from real estate buyers who are intent, no doubt, on currying favor with the president. Just this week, the first Republican member of Congress to endorse Trump was indicted for insider trading — and is defiantly not resigning his seat.
Ross’s actions, while scandalous, hardly stand out. Not only are Trump administration figures rarely held accountable for their corrupt acts, but they are committing them brazenly and in plain view — secure in the knowledge that Congress will say nothing, and any media firestorm will quickly blow over.
Trump disastrous tenure as president has fostered divisions, minimized U.S influence around the globe, and enshrined racism and abject cruelty in the actions of our government. But perhaps worst of all, Trump and his enablers have systematically run roughshod over the political norms that once guided our public life. The strength of our democratic institutions has always relied on the willingness of political leaders to ensure they are defended and protected. When they’re not, and when the president and Congress allow public corruption to flower; when they allow our leaders to thumb their nose at the law and democratic traditions; and when they allow public service to be turned into an opportunity for personal profit, well, you don’t really have much of a democracy anymore. One doesn’t have to know who Wilbur Ross is to understand that, with Trump as president, this is the path on which America is headed.
Michael A. Cohen’s column appears regularly in the Globe. Follow him on Twitter @speechboy71.