Keep an eye on Wilbur Ross, President-elect Donald Trump’s nominee for commerce secretary. He will be a force in driving economic policy. In recent years, the Commerce Department has become something of a marginalized political outpost. The commerce secretary is frequently considered something of a “junior partner” on the president’s economic team, and the Commerce Department is always expected to defer to the Treasury Department on consequential matters. It’s my bet that Ross doesn’t know this and that no one is going to tell him. It’s my bet that Ross will make his presence known.
First, Ross has a personal relationship with the president-elect that goes back decades. Trump will take his calls and expect him to speak up.
Second, Wilbur Ross is among the most successful people in the Trump Cabinet — and that’s saying something. He has been successful in buying and managing a diverse portfolio of companies, ranging from steel to telecommunications. He may have the most real-world business experience of any Cabinet secretary. Ross, who was a Democrat by upbringing, previously served in President Bill Clinton’s administration as a board member of the U.S.-Russia Investment Fund. And, at 79, Ross isn’t angling for his next job, doesn’t need to impress anybody and doesn’t have anything to prove. He won’t be intimidated by his surroundings or necessarily yield to instructions from the White House or his fellow Cabinet members. I also wouldn’t expect him to fall into the trap of attending tiresome trade-show receptions where he is just expected to deliver happy-talk talking points.
Trump said last week that he wants his Cabinet members to “say what [they] want to say.” I don’t think Ross will have any problem saying what is on his mind, and if anyone tries to hint that commerce secretaries are expected to be mostly benign cheerleaders, they might be in for a surprise.