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Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross is tied up in major financial conflicts of interest

He even found a way to profit from exposure of his corruption.

President Trump Meets With National Space Council At White House Alex Wong/Getty Images

Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross’s job responsibilities cast him as a central player in the multi-front trade wars the Trump administration has been instigating this spring. Ross is also an extraordinarily wealthy man who, according to blockbuster reporting out this week from Forbes’s Dan Alexander, has never divested from major financial conflicts of interests.

This lacks the comic elements of some of the Scott Pruitt corruption scandals and has largely been ignored amid mass outrage over the separation of children from their parents at the US-Mexico border, but it’s a significant story in its own right and a sign of congressional Republicans’ ongoing abdication of oversight responsibility even in a policy area where they’ve sometimes been at odds with President Trump.

The whole story is worth your time. But to highlight, Ross spent most of 2017 in office while maintaining partial ownership of, among other things:

  • Chinese state-owned enterprises
  • A shipping company tied to Russian oligarchs
  • A Cypriot bank that’s involved in Robert Mueller’s investigation
  • A major player in the auto parts industry with a direct stake in Commerce’s trade policy decisions

Perhaps the most egregiously corrupt aspect of this is that, according to Alexander, Ross even managed to find a way to profit off the exposure of his own corruption: “five days before reports surfaced last fall that Ross was connected to cronies of Vladimir Putin through a shipping firm called Navigator Holdings, the secretary of commerce, who likely knew about the reporting, shorted stock in the Kremlin-linked company, positioning himself to make money on the investment when share prices dropped.”

And while Ross is now formally divested, many of his assets have simply been passed off to a family trust, meaning that the conflicts of interest are still present.

Probably the single most clear-cut opportunity for corruption that Alexander reveals concerns the International Automotive Components Group, a conglomerate Ross created by merging several formerly separate automotive interior companies. The problem is that back on May 23, the president issued a statement saying that he “instructed Secretary Ross to consider initiating a Section 232 investigation into imports of automobiles, including trucks, and automotive parts to determine their effects on America’s national security.”

The point of the investigation is to determine whether the United States should impose new taxes on imports of foreign cars and car parts — a question that is obviously going to have a direct bearing on the fortunes of Ross’s car parts company.

Congressional Republicans, meanwhile, have often expressed some displeasure at Trump’s conduct of trade policy — a rare example where he has stuck to his “populist” campaign guns rather than adhering to orthodox conservative economic policy.

But they’ve steadfastly refused to engage in any meaningful investigation into corruption or financial conflicts of interest on the part of anyone on team Trump, presumably because opening that door would necessarily end up casting some light on the president himself.

But if Republicans really are interested in checking Trump’s drift toward trade war, taking a hard look at what’s really going on with Ross and his trusts would be a good place to start.

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