Dems find easy target in Trump commerce chief

Dems find easy target in Trump commerce chief
© Anna Moneymaker

A Democratic House will pose a new headache for Commerce Secretary Wilbur RossWilbur Louis RossThe Hill's 12:30 Report: O'Rourke jumps into 2020 fray 'Marie Antoinette' activist attends House hearing to protest Trump Commerce chief The Hill's Morning Report - Trump, Senate GOP clash over Yemen, border security MORE, one of the most vulnerable Trump administration officials heading into 2019.

Ross faces a slew of ethics complaints over conflicts of interest between his extensive financial holdings and his role overseeing much of the U.S. economy.

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The new scrutiny from Democrats also comes at an already difficult time for the secretary, who has also grown estranged from President TrumpDonald John TrumpWarren: 'White supremacists pose a threat to the United States like any other terrorist group' National Enquirer paid 0,000 for Bezos texts: report Santorum: Trump should 'send emails to a therapist' instead of tweeting MORE despite implementing and fiercely defending his controversial tariffs.

Trump is reportedly considering replacing Ross as he shakes up his Cabinet ahead of his reelection bid. And Democrats, eager to expose any misconduct by administration officials, could soon haul in Ross for embarrassing hearings that could harm his standing with the president.

That leaves Ross, an early Trump adviser and ally, on thin ice.

Ross is in charge of implementing Trump’s tariffs on imported steel, aluminum and Chinese goods. A protectionist who identified as a Democrat before joining the Trump administration, Ross has also been a chief defender of Trump’s trade policy on both cable news and on Capitol Hill to skeptical Republicans.

Ross, 80, fit neatly in Trump’s Cabinet and earned high praise from his fellow New Yorker. But the president has soured on Ross amid growing backlash to his trade agenda and a lack of progress toward reaching a new trade deal with China.

After months of mocking Ross’s age and energy, Trump is reportedly considering replacing him with Small Business Administration chief Linda McMahonLinda Marie McMahonThe Hill's Morning Report - Trump, Senate GOP clash over Yemen, border security Karen Pence leads US delegation to Special Olympics in UAE Karen Pence to lead Special Olympics delegation with Mariano Rivera MORE or Overseas Private Investment Council President Ray Washburne.

It’s unclear how a Ross exit would impact Trump’s fractious economic team and its implementation of his trade agenda. But ditching the embattled Commerce secretary could save the White House weeks of damaging headlines triggered by congressional probes into Ross’s finances.

Ross had amassed billions of dollars throughout his career in shipping, manufacturing and private equity. His immense wealth bolstered his image as a high-stakes dealmaker well equipped to upend the global trading system. But his failure to manage several conflicts of interest has landed Ross in political — and potentially legal — jeopardy.

Democrats and ethics watchdogs have filed a number of complaints against Ross regarding questionable financial transactions he has made while in office, inaccurate ethics disclosures and meetings with executives from companies in which he has invested.

And two of the Democrats who have called for more answers, Reps. Maxine WatersMaxine Moore WatersDems concerned impeachment will make Trump 'appear like a victim,' says pollster Trump calls Biden 'low I.Q. individual' after verbal slip On The Money: Senate rejects border declaration in rebuke to Trump | Dems press Mnuchin on Trump tax returns | Waters says Wells Fargo should fire its CEO MORE (Calif.) on the House Financial Services Committee and Elijah CummingsElijah Eugene CummingsHouse Dems renew push for government contractor back pay Cummings demands ex-Fox News reporter share information on Stormy Daniels payments The Hill's Morning Report — Trump readies first veto after latest clash with Senate GOP MORE on the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, are both in line to chair those panels in 2019. That would give them subpoena power to wield in their own probes of Ross’s stock sales.

A stable of potential Democratic presidential candidates, including Sens. Elizabeth WarrenElizabeth Ann WarrenWarren calls for abolishing Electoral College Warren: 'White supremacists pose a threat to the United States like any other terrorist group' Poll: Biden leads among millennial voters MORE (Mass.) and Cory BookerCory Anthony BookerPoll: Biden leads among millennial voters Booker: Racists think Trump's racist Booker vows to reverse 'ridiculous' transgender military ban if elected president MORE (N.J.), are also seizing on official meetings Ross held with companies including Chevron, Boeing and Greenbrier before divesting from those firms.

“Secretary Ross’s decisions to meet with senior Chevron, Boeing, and Greenbrier officials while maintaining his investments in those companies raises questions about his compliance with federal conflict of interest criminal statutes,” Warren and Booker wrote in a Friday letter with Democratic Sens. Richard Blumenthal (Conn.) and Ed MarkeyEdward (Ed) John MarkeyThe Hill's 12:30 Report: Manafort sentenced to total of 7.5 years in prison Hillicon Valley: Google takes heat at privacy hearing | 2020 Dems to debate 'monopoly power' | GOP rips net neutrality bill | Warren throws down gauntlet over big tech | New scrutiny for Trump over AT&T merger Overnight Energy: EPA moves to raise ethanol levels in gasoline | Dems look to counter White House climate council | Zinke cleared of allegations tied to special election MORE (Mass.).

High-ranking federal officials are barred from acting on matters relevant to their own financial holdings. Cabinet chiefs and top regulators typically sell shares of corporate stocks that their work could affect or recuse themselves from any potential conflicts of interest.

But Ross huddled with representatives of Boeing Co., Chevron Corp., Greenbrier Companies and International Automotive Components Group before he divested from those companies, according to a Forbes analysis of his schedules.

Liberal watchdog group Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington (CREW) filed a criminal complaint against Ross in August, arguing that the secretary could have violated conflict of interest laws with those meetings.

“Secretary Ross continues to demonstrate a troubling disregard for his ethics obligations, and his systematic failures and omissions suggest that he may have knowingly and willfully violated the law,” said CREW Executive Director Noah Bookbinder in August.

Ross has denied any wrongdoing over how he handled his investments.

Ross’s attorney, Theodore Kassinger, said in August that the secretary “has not participated personally and substantially in, nor taken any action in regard to a particular matter that would have had a direct and predictable effect on his financial investments.”

Forbes also reported in June that Ross shorted shares of shipping company Navigator Holdings in November 2017, shortly after The New York Times asked him about his ties to the Russian-linked firm.

Ross placed his bet against the stock price three days after the paper had contacted him about the story, and five days before the story was published, according to the Times. In response, Warren, Cummings and Blumenthal asked Securities and Exchange Commissioner Jay Clayton to probe whether Ross’s short sale violated insider trading laws.

The Office of Government Ethics chastised Ross a month later for failing to sell his remaining shares of Invesco until December, almost a full year after he told federal ethics officials he had already divested from the company. Ross sold his investment firm WL Ross and Co. to Invesco in 2006, but he maintained a financial stake in the massive investment company.

Ross said after the OGE reprimand that he made “inadvertent errors” in his financial disclosure.

“My investments were complex and included hundreds of items. I self-reported each error, and worked diligently with my department’s ethics officials to make sure I avoided any conflicts of interest,” the secretary said.

But those denials have not convinced Democrats.

“American taxpayers deserve assurances that Secretary Ross can serve the public trust in a manner that is unbiased and free from conflicts of interest,” Democrats, including Waters and Cummings, wrote in a letter in June seeking a Commerce Department investigation into potential conflicts of interest.