Investor Wilbur Ross was brought into the administration as one of President Donald Trump’s “killers” – but in recent months, the commerce secretary has been increasingly marginalized, with his agency widely seen in the White House as a mess.
Trump himself has lashed out at Ross in Oval Office meetings, telling the man who once helped bail him out in Atlantic City that he’s “past his prime” and “no longer a killer” and trying to bench him from making trade deals, according to three people familiar with the comments. Despite being one of the administration’s leading protectionist voices early on, Ross was initially left off a May trade delegation to China led by Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin.
But now Ross is heading back to China in early June in hope of cutting some type of trade deal that delivers on Trump’s campaign promises to extract concessions from Beijing on behalf of American workers.
Fans of Trump’s protectionist stance have been heartened – Ross “is one of the Trump trade champions and he gets the issues” said former Nucor steel CEO and Trump campaign adviser Dan DiMicco – but others say Ross taking the lead this time around is a dim sign for the talks.
“The fact that he is going over to China is a signal that the president has some confidence in him. He likes Ross even if he does not consider him a killer,” said one former administration official. “But it’s also a signal that they are not expecting a whole lot. You would not send him if you were expecting real progress.”
Although Ross still plays a large public-facing role — just last week the president instructed him to examine potential tariffs on foreign cars — his stature internally on delicate trade negotiations has diminished amid perpetual jockeying between advocates of free trade and those like Ross who want to take a harder, more protectionist stance, according to interviews with more than a dozen current and former administration officials and Republicans close to the White House.
Originally, Ross had hoped to play the alpha dog on trade policy. He tried to establish his dominance early on by launching a Commerce Department investigation into the effects of steel and aluminum imports on national security. He even maintained an office in the Eisenhower Executive Office building on the White House grounds, keeping him in close proximity to Trump.
But he has been outmaneuvered by U.S. Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer, who was confirmed in May 2017 — the last of Trump’s Cabinet officials to pass through the Senate. Lighthizer quickly morphed into a power player and launched his own investigations into cybertheft and Chinese trade demands.
Ross also hurt himself politically when he brought back to the president two potential deals with China last year. One would have cut China’s production of steel, though some policy experts say China was already planning to so by closing some plants. The other deal would have allowed imported cooked chicken from China into the U.S. in exchange for opening up the Chinese market to U.S. beef.
In a meeting in the Oval Office, Ross tried to cast the beef deal as a big win — but the president viewed it as too small and a bad agreement, an original sin in this White House. He reamed out Ross in front of a small cadre of officials, according to the three people briefed on the exchange, and told Ross he wanted him out of the negotiations.
That was the beginning of Ross’ marginalization, even if the president still likes him personally and even if Ross still attends trade meetings as a principal.
One senior administration official noted that Ross remains invaluable to Trump because of his deep familiarity to China given the many deals he conducted in the country as an investor. The two also run in many of the same social circles and still see one another at Mar-a-Lago where Ross remains a member. One Republican close to the White House said that Trump keeps Ross around because the president views him as “harmless.”
But Ross has run into bureaucratic snafus. Early Commerce reports on the steel and aluminum tariffs were held up for weeks because they lacked legal analysis or input from the national security experts, or other agencies such as the Department of Defense, according to one Republican close to the White House.
A similar problem occurred during Trump’s November trip to China, when Ross tried to unveil a number of deals between Chinese and American businesses, only to have the White House try to kill many of them at the last minute because the announcements had not been vetted with the Department of Justice or legal team.
The Commerce Department press office did not comment, while the White House did not respond to a list of questions.
The focus on trade – most recently, imposing tariffs and dealing with the Chinese electronics company ZTE — has put Ross in the middle of the biggest fights dividing Trump’s economic advisers.
“He is the most prominent commerce secretary in many, many years,” said Larry Kudlow, director of the White House’s National Economic Council. “I mean, he’s really a central player of all of the trade talks.”
Critics, however, charge that Ross is running a 47,000-person government agency like a boutique financial firm.
Under Ross’ leadership, the Commerce Department has seen an exodus of five top Republican appointees, leaving the agency in the hands of three Ross loyalists who work on the building’s fifth floor and control most decisions emanating from the building.
These aides are focused on fulfilling Ross’ wishes on trade policy, sometimes to the detriment of the agency’s other wide-ranging responsibilities, which include 12 different bureaus and offices that cover everything from economic analysis to NOAA to minority business development, the U.S. census, and patents.
Ross’ chief of staff, Wendy Teramoto, serves more as Ross’ personal aide than someone who manages the building, agenda, or staff. Teramoto served on the board of Navigator Holdings, a shipping company whose clients include a Russian energy company with Kremlin ties, while she was working in the Trump administration. She also served as an executive of Ross’ private equity firm WL Ross & Co. after becoming a government employee. She resigned from both positions before taking over as the Commerce Department’s chief-of-staff.
Inside the agency, career staff have been locked out of the much of decision-making, according to current and former administration officials, although a new political appointee, Karen Dunn Kelley, is earning high marks from staff.
Outside observers worry most about the fate of NOAA, which comprises about half of the Commerce budget, and the U.S. Census, slated to begin in 2020. The census does not have a Senate-confirmed director in place.
Both the acting head of the U.S. Census, Ron Jarmin, and the assistant secretary of commerce for oceans and atmosphere at NOAA told POLITICO that Ross is very engaged in their respective missions, and they’ve met him at meetings, or when he’s visited their offices.
The census “preparations are well underway,” Jarmin said. “When they first came in the door, there was a steep learning curve, but they picked it up quickly, and they are in the weeds with us,” citing a recent census exercise in Rhode Island as one example.
Few administration officials, current and former, or close advisers to the White House believe Ross’ tenure at Commerce is in jeopardy, even if some White House officials believe Commerce could be doing much more given its broad portfolio and mandate.
Ray Washburne, a Trump campaign donor who was appointed president of the Overseas Private Investment Corporation, a government agency, is said to be eyeing the Commerce slot if Ross ever leaves, said one Republican lobbyist close to the administration. When reached by phone, Washburne said he was not interested and consumed by legislation, working its way through Capitol Hill, that will restructure OPIC.
Close advisers to the White House say that Ross is having too much fun traveling abroad as top U.S. Cabinet official, appearing on CNBC, and attending meetings in the Oval Office to give up the trappings of the administration unless he is forced out.
“Ross has been involved and then totally uninvolved on trade and the reason is because his whole mode is to tell the president whatever he wants to hear,” said one of the close advisers to the White House. “He is always trying to guess what the president will say. In the beginning, that was easier because the president was more predictable. But Ross did not get the message that Trump now wants to win the Nobel Peace Prize and doesn’t want to launch a trade war.”
Into the leadership vacuum has stepped Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin, another Trump loyalist dating back to the campaign. Mnuchin and Kudlow now represent the free trade wing of the administration, a slot previously held by the former National Economic Council director Gary Cohn, while Lighthizer and trade adviser Peter Navarro take a more hawkish and hardline view on trade policy and consider the Chinese bad actors.
One former administration official characterized the commerce secretary’s role as fluid, typical in a White House where the president likes to assemble a team of rivals and hear from different viewpoints.
“At particular points in time, the president will look to one of the principals more than the other. That changes day to day, and week to week, month to month,” said the official. “The campaign was the same way. That is how the president utilizes the best talent for the best time.”