Senate confirms Wilbur Ross as US commerce secretary

Ranking Democrat hits out at White House over failure to release documents on Cyprus bank links with Russia and Trump

 Wilbur Ross testifies before a Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee confirmation hearing on his nomination to be commerce secretary in Washington. Photograph: Carlos Barria/Reuters

Wilbur Ross testifies before a Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee confirmation hearing on his nomination to be commerce secretary in Washington. Photograph: Carlos Barria/Reuters

 

Billionaire Wilbur Ross was confirmed as US commerce secretary by the Senate, clearing the way for one of President Donald Trump’s key trade officials to take office.

Mr Ross’s nomination was approved in a 72-27 vote on Monday night in Washington. He is due to be officially sworn in Tuesday at the White House.

Mr Trump rode to victory in the primary and general elections last year in part on pledges to make trade more favourable for the US economy and workers. With Mr Ross now officially in the job, he can start working on his confirmation-hearing promises to prioritise re-negotiating the North American Free Trade Agreement with Mexico and Canada, and level the playing field with China, which Mr Ross called the”most protectionist” major nation.

During Senate testimony, Mr Ross (79) warned trading partners to practise “fair trade” and cut state control over business if they want access to the world’s biggest economy.

“I am not anti-trade,” he said. “I am pro-trade. But I am pro-sensible trade, not trade that is detrimental to the American worker and to the domestic manufacturing base.”

During Mr Ross’s confirmation hearing on January 18th, Republican and Democratic senators appeared impressed by his business experience and knowledge of the issues. Senator Bill Nelson, the ranking Democrat on the panel, called the hearing a “piece of cake” compared with the grilling endured by some of Trump’s other cabinet nominees.

Big Change

“In recent years the commerce secretary post has not been one of the most sought after or appreciated positions in Washington,” Senator Nelson said. “But I have a feeling that’s about to change in a big way.”

Asked about Mr Trump’s threat to impose a 35 per cent import tariff on companies that shift jobs overseas, Mr Ross suggested that some of the president’s campaign promises should be seen as negotiating tactics, rather than policy pronouncements.

Mr Ross will be one of the most seasoned business leaders on the president’s economic team. As a private-equity investor, he restructured companies across a range of industries including steel, banking and textiles.

Bloomberg values his fortune at $3 billion and, in financial disclosures released last month, he revealed assets topping $336 million, including at least $150 million held in bank accounts and an art collection worth more than $50 million.

In an ethics agreement released before his confirmation hearing, Mr Ross said he will resign his positions with 38 entities. Those include Invesco, which bought Mr Ross’s private equity firm in 2006, as well as seven named subsidiaries, and Bank of Cyprus

The White House has been accused of withholding information from Congress about whether Mr Trump or any of his campaign affiliates have ever received loans from Bank of Cyprus, which is partly owned by a close ally of Russian president Vladimir Putin.

A group of Democratic senators have been waiting for two weeks for Mr Ross, who has served as vice-chairman of the bank since 2014, to answer a series of questions about possible links between the bank, Russian officials, and current and former Trump administration and campaign officials.

Mr Ross also received a second letter last Friday from Senator Cory Booker with more detailed questions about possible Russia links.

But in a speech just before the Senate vote to approve Mr Ross’s nomination as secretary of the commerce department, Senator Nelson said the White House “has chosen to sit on” a written response by Mr Ross to some of those questions even though the incoming commerce secretary told the senator he was eager to release his response.

Senator Nelson said senators were “troubled and frustrated” by the White House move. He said it had been “verbally reiterated” to him by Mr Ross that he was not aware of any “loans or interactions” between the Bank of Cyprus and the Trump campaign or Trump Organisation.

Mr Ross had also been asked to provide more details about his own relationship with previous and current Russian investors in the bank, including Viktor Vekselberg , a longtime ally of the Russian president, and Vladimir Strzhalkovsky, the former vice-chairman of Bank of Cyprus who is also a former KGB agent with a close relationship to Mr Putin.

Mr Ross told Senator Nelson that he had one meeting that lasted about an hour with a Russian investor in the bank in 2014, but no other details were provided.

“I believe him in what he has told me, that it is true to his belief,” Senator Nelson said in a speech on the Senate floor. “I want to say, at the same time, the White House and the way they have handled this matter is not doing Wilbur Ross any favours.”

– Bloomberg / New York Times service 2017