December 12, 2018
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Wilbur Ross is much like his boss

Manuel Balce Ceneta | AP
Manuel Balce Ceneta | AP
Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross, testifies on Capitol Hill in Washington, June 22, 2018.

It is much easier to list the people in President Donald Trump’s inner circle who do not have conflicts of interest and have not been investigated for small and large acts of graft (including tax fraud). The number of ethically above-board characters is small. (Defense Secretary Jim Mattis, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, CIA Director Gina Haspel and FBI Director Christopher Wray come to mind.) Everyone is legally entitled to the presumption of innocence, but many in Trump’s inner circle have admitted financial chicanery and others face a mountain of evidence and/or a long line of accusers.

There are habitual grifters such as former Environmental Protection Agency administrator Scott Pruitt, who’ll be remembered as the guy who tried to get a Chick-fil-A gig for his wife and got a $50-per-night Capitol Hill apartment rental from a lobbyist’s spouse (among many other scandals), and former Health and Human Services secretary Tom Price, ousted for abusing jet travel and accused of violating House ethics rules on stock ownership.

Whether the allegation is wasteful spending of taxpayers’ dollars (Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin), failure to register as a foreign agent (former campaign chairman Paul Manafort), false statements under oath in writing or verbally (Attorney General Jeff Sessions and son-in-law/adviser Jared Kushner), receipt of foreign emoluments or other conflicts of interest (Trump), office extravagances (Housing and Urban Development Secretary Ben Carson) or ethics-violating promotion (Kellyanne Conway for Ivanka Trump’s clothing line), the range of alleged offenses is quite impressive. Finally, there are a significant number of people under investigation for serious crimes such as bank and/or tax fraud (e.g., Manafort, Rick Gates and Michael Cohen) and for campaign-finance violations (Trump and Cohen).

Yet, no one seems to have matched Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross for the number and magnitude of alleged financial improprieties.

Forbes, which already caught Ross misrepresenting his wealth and lying about stock divestment, now reports:

“Over several months, in speaking with 21 people who know Ross, Forbes uncovered a pattern: Many of those who worked directly with him claim that Ross wrongly siphoned or outright stole a few million here and a few million there, huge amounts for most but not necessarily for the commerce secretary. At least if you consider them individually. But all told, these allegations-which sparked lawsuits, reimbursements and an SEC fine-come to more than $120 million. If even half of the accusations are legitimate, the current United States secretary of commerce could rank among the biggest grifters in American history.”

There are allegations of mischarging investors, “skim[ming] money by serving on corporate boards of his firm’s portfolio companies,” and bilking employees. (In an emailed statement, Commerce’s public affairs department says, “The anonymously sourced Forbes story is based on false rumors, innuendo, and unverifiable claims. The fact remains that no regulator has made any of these accusations against the Secretary. This rehash of old stories is clearly the result of a personal vendetta. The baseless claims made in this story were well publicized long ago and are not news.”)

The Securities and Exchange Commission fined Ross $2.3 million, but he has not been convicted of anything nor admitted liability in the numerous claims brought against him. Forbes succinctly summarized his conduct:

“Those who’ve done business with Ross generally tell a consistent story, of a man obsessed with money and untethered to facts. ‘He’ll push the edge of truthfulness and use whatever power he has to grab assets,’ says New York financier Asher Edelman.”

Remind you of anyone?

Trump has not hired the “best” people. He by and large hired people like himself, rich grifters for whom there is never enough money and for whom “truth” is something malleable in the hands of the rich and famous. Pick your favorite metaphor – the fish rots from the head? – but honest, experienced people generally have shied away from serving in this administration. Trump deplores “Boy Scouts” (an insult he used for House Speaker Paul Ryan) and therefore doesn’t hire many of them. If his aim was to hire no one more honest than he, Trump largely succeeded.

That’s what people get when they vote for a snake-oil salesman who refused to reveal his tax returns, has a history of bankruptcy and unpaid bills, and paid $25 million to settle a Trump University fraud case. What did people expect?

Jennifer Rubin writes the Right Turn blog for The Washington Post, offering reported opinion from a center-right perspective. Follow her @JRubinBlogger.

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