Donald Trump’s refusal to divest his business empire and place his assets in a blind trust put another one of his Cabinet picks in a tough spot Wednesday.
Private equity billionaire Wilbur Ross has agreed to sell more than 90 percent of his assets in order to avoid conflicts of interest if he is confirmed as commerce secretary. But at his confirmation hearing on Wednesday, Ross repeatedly refused to say whether Trump should follow his lead and struggled to explain how he would deal with policy decisions that affected the president’s bottom line.
“As I understand it, the ethics rules that apply to Senate-approved nominees do not apply to the president,” Ross told Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.) when asked directly whether Trump should divest his businesses.
“But simply as a matter of appearance and morality ― you were able to do it, why not the president?” Blumenthal asked.
Ross said he didn’t know how complicated the president-elect’s finances might be.
Blumenthal went on to emphasize that Trump’s enterprises would have matters directly before Ross’ agency. The Trump Organization has eight applications for new trademarks pending before the Patent and Trademark Office, which is part of the Commerce Department. Ross said he would be very careful to “recuse” himself from thorny decisions, a response that Blumenthal noted doesn’t really help much.
“There’s no way to avoid a conflict of interest when the one with that interest is the president of the United States,” Blumenthal said. “He is your boss. ... He is the one who presides over the entire United States government.”
“Everyone will be watching all of those matters, and therefore they will certainly be subject to public scrutiny,” Ross said.
The nominee also repeatedly refused to guarantee that he would notify the Senate Commerce Committee if foreign governments offered perks to Trump businesses or threatened to undermine the president’s holdings in the course of international trade negotiations.
Last week, Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) pursued a similar line of questioning with Ben Carson, Trump’s nominee to head the Department of Housing and Urban Development. Warren asked Carson to guarantee that HUD’s anti-poverty spending would not flow to Trump or his family. Carson refused to make that pledge. Trump has an ownership stake in a 46-building affordable-housing complex that is overseen by HUD.