Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross was already the most corrupt cabinet member in the Trump administration. He was party to many shady deals while vice chair of the Bank of Cyprus, and faced multiple lawsuits and SEC fines for his practices with his other business holdings. Like his boss, Ross held on to many of his business interests despite promising to divest, and a Forbes investigation found that his calendar has been studded with meetings with companies tied to his own portfolio—from Boeing and Ford to international firms, including questionable interests in Russia and China. After Democrats took back the House last year, Bloomberg columnist Joe Nocera suggested that Ross should be high on their list of Trump toadies to be investigated. On top of all that business sleaze, he’s also been caught lying under oath, to courts and to Congress, about the purpose behind his agency’s failed attempt to add a citizenship question to the census (hint: It was racism).
All of that came before Monday, when we learned from The New York Times that Ross “threatened to fire top employees” at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration if they did not back up Trump’s claim that Hurricane Dorian was headed for Alabama, when in fact was not. Birmingham’s National Weather Service officials were forced to issue a statement reassuring Alabamians that the storm was not coming their way, after fielding calls from people worried they that should evacuate. That prompted Trump to continue to insist he had been right about his Alabama claim, even using a Sharpie to ridiculously alter a Weather Service map to falsely show the state within the storm’s potential path.
Much of the media treated “Sharpiegate,” as it was frivolously termed, as another zany Trump battle with the truth, but it was on its own an abuse of power. Then it got worse. According to the Times, Ross “phoned Neil Jacobs, the acting administrator of NOAA, from Greece where the secretary was traveling for meetings and instructed Dr. Jacobs to fix the agency’s perceived contradiction of the president.” After Ross’s pressure, NOAA released an unsigned statement claiming Trump had in fact been given information that Alabama was a possible Dorian target, and specifically chiding Birmingham weather officials for correcting the president using “absolute terms that were inconsistent with probabilities from the best forecast products available at the time.” Huh?
“Sharpiegate” was never just another silly Trump story. It was always about his authoritarian approach to power, and his willingness to sacrifice public safety to his own vanity. Obviously, people rely on National Weather Service reports to decide whether to stay or to evacuate during a major storm. But Ross’s involvement makes the story one layer more corrupt.
He’s commerce secretary: Imagine the “commerce” implications of bad advice from NOAA and the National Weather Service, as businesses tried to prepare for what was for a while a Category 5 hurricane. This wasn’t just another ugly episode of Trump-ass-kissing but a serious subversion of Ross’s own responsibilities. Ross is someone with the power and fortune to walk away from this job, rather than shame himself this way, but clearly this level of corruption doesn’t bother him.
The Commerce Department’s inspector general is now examining the Times’ charge. Clearly, if it’s true, and there’s no reason to believe it isn’t, Ross should resign, and if he doesn’t resign, he should be impeached. So far, a few members of Congress have called on Ross to resign, but that would require Trump to force him. Congress has its own powers, and it should use them to get to the bottom of what Ross did immediately.
In the two weeks since I wrote this piece about the increasing brazenness of Trump’s corruption, after he suggested that his failing Doral resort should host the next G-7 meeting, we’ve seen Vice President Mike Pence stay at his boss’s Doonbeg resort in Ireland (though it was remote from Pence’s planned meetings) and learned that the Air Force is diverting flights to a fueling station near Trump’s Turnberry project in Scotland, and that military personnel have stayed occasionally at the money-losing golf resort. (Trump claims, unbelievably, that he had nothing to do with either move.) Now comes this obvious abuse of power by the commerce secretary, clearly to appease his boss.
As I wrote then, Trump’s corruption appears to be accelerating, and it’s hard not to think it has something to do with House Democrats’ internal divisions over how seriously to take their oversight responsibility. Recently, there has been an uptick in members’ proposing that corruption might be as serious a basis for impeachment as obstruction of justice allegations. “People understand what it means for the president to be spending millions of dollars in federal government tax dollars at his own business properties,” Representative Jamie Raskin told Politico.
People do. Does the Democratic leadership? We’ll find out. Meanwhile, Ross’s latest moves should factor into any Trump corruption investigation—and should trigger an impeachment inquiry for the commerce secretary, too.