Sure, he was a rising octogenarian with a murky ethical business history who made his billions from dealing in distressed assets and seemed to have more conflicts of interests than a Wells Fargo retail banker at a family wedding, but Wilbur Ross also seemed like one of Donald Trump's better cabinet picks..
Since his confirmation though, Ol' Wilbur showed up to Trump's first populist State of the Union wearing literal velvet slippers, fell asleep during a summit in Riyadh, and faded somewhat from view as Steve Mnuchin and Gary Cohn took the lead in getting his taxes slashed. In fact, it seemed as of late that Wilbur was becoming something of a footnote in the increasingly embattled Trump White House.
But then, yesterday happened:
Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross failed to disclose business connections to Russian President Vladimir Putin’s family and inner circle on a required personal financial-disclosure form earlier this year, according to documents released over the weekend.
Wilbur is back, baby!
Mr. Ross said earlier this year that he would retain stakes owned by his private-equity firm in a gas-shipping company, Navigator Holdings Ltd. He didn’t disclose that the company does millions of dollars in business—$68 million since 2014—with a Moscow petrochemicals company, Sibur, with close ties to the Kremlin, according to analysis by the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists...
Sibur’s owners include Kirill Shamalov, who is married to Mr. Putin’s younger daughter, and Gennady Timchenko, a co-founder of the Gunvor Group, a Cyprus-registered commodities trading firm. Mr. Timchenko was among the first Russian businessmen to be sanctioned by the U.S. following Russia’s intervention in Ukraine’s Crimea region. The Treasury Department’s Office of Foreign Assets Control called him a member of “the Russian leadership’s inner circle” and said Mr. Timchenko’s “activities in the energy sector have been directly linked to Putin.”
To quote the famous Mister Ed: Holy fucking shit, Wilbur.
This is just sloppy. We know Ross was pretty cagey about divestments during his confirmation hearings, but this is just galling. With Russian rumors having plagued the Trump campaign, transition, and White House, one would think that Wilbur would have been extra careful to scrub himself of anything even vaguely related to Putin, nonetheless directly related by marriage. Then again, we all knew that Wilbur was on the board of directors at The Bank of Cyprus, which is essentially like being a shareholder in a laundromat that specializes in Russian money.
What's amazing here is these kind of dealings are what guys like Wilbur do to make money. But as impressive as the weaving job on this intricate money web is, how did Wilbur not disentangle from it in time to not get caught? This is not the decision-making of a genius politician.
Of course Wilbur is already mumbling "Fake news" to CNBC, because that Kellyanne Conway bullshit is what these people do at every turn, but his dismissal is being undercut by his own Commerce Department, which responded to WSJ thusly:
The Commerce Department released a statement Sunday saying Mr. Ross hadn’t been involved in Navigator Holdings’ decision to do business with Sibur and “has never met the Sibur shareholders referenced in this story and, until now, did not know of their relationship.”
The statement said Mr. Ross “recuses himself from matters focused on transoceanic shipping vessels but has been supportive of the administration’s sanctions against Russian and other entities.” Mr. Ross “works closely with Commerce Department ethics officials to ensure the highest ethical standards,” the statement said.
So, Wilbur's defending himself by saying that since he wasn't acutely aware that he was making money from deals with influential Kremlin types, it's all okay? And he's also doing damage control by recusing himself from any government decisions regarding international shipping?
Umm, he's the fucking Commerce Secretary.
At least, for now.