The secretary of commerce is 10th in line for the presidency, which is close enough to be important and far away enough to be complacent. Wilbur Ross, the current secretary, is nearly 82, which is old enough to get away with a nap during business hours and young enough to throw on beach khakis, grab a glass of white wine and observe naked people cocooned in plastic wrap at an arts benefit in the Hamptons. He is a quiet man, smart and generous, but he seems detached from reality: too rich to remember how the real world works, too uninterested in his role as commerce secretary to enact much beyond stasis, mortification or bafflement, according to his critics. He has debased two main missions of his department: the census, for which he tried to add a citizenship question and falsely stated it was the Justice Department’s idea, and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, whose leaders he reportedly threatened earlier this month, at the direction of the White House.

The man is prim and precise in private life, in the way wealthy people can afford to be: the velvet slippers from Stubbs & Wootton, the prizewinning home in Palm Beach, Fla., the large collection of surrealist paintings by René Magritte. But as a public servant . . .

“Commerce is a mess today,” says a former department official.

AD
AD

“It’s a mess,” confirms a current department official.

“He’s a bit of a mess,” says Virginia Canter, chief ethics counsel at Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington. She’s speaking about Ross’s conflicts of interest, which have included maintaining financial connections — while overseeing U.S. trade — to companies tied to Russia and China. Just this month, Forbes reported that he still owned shares in a shipping fund despite promising to divest last year.

“That has nothing to do with anything,” Ross said of that news, when approached this month by The Washington Post during a black-tie gala at Washington National Cathedral. “Shipping holdings were not required to be sold. No shipping issue has ever come before my administration.”

AD

What about reports that he threatened NOAA?

“I have no idea,” said Ross, who has denied the story. “Washington has more leakers than they have truth-tellers.”

AD

He was at the front entrance of the cathedral, steps from his Chevy Suburban. In his cobwebbed monotone, Ross had just delivered a short tribute to former transportation and commerce secretary Norman Mineta as part of a ceremony honoring excellence in government. Does Ross feel it is appropriate to be a featured speaker at such an event, given his persistent conflicts of interest —

“I don’t have conflicts — ”

— and ethics violations —

“No,” Ross said. “There’s been no conflicts of interest.” The Office of Government Ethics “has said I have never done anything in a conflict of interest.” (It did say last year that his tardy divestitures “created the potential for a serious criminal violation”; in February the office refused to certify Ross’s financial disclosures because he inaccurately reported stock holdings.)

AD
AD

What about his actions with the census? In March, a federal judge found that he broke the law; Congress then held him in contempt for ignoring subpoenas related to the citizenship question, which was stymied by a Supreme Court judgment that called Ross’s rationale “contrived.”

“The Supreme Court made its ruling, and now we’re going to conduct the census,” he said, heading to the Suburban with his wife, Hilary Geary Ross, presumably for the one-mile drive to their $10 million mansion, a Beaux-Arts layer cake of limestone and marble. “Thank you very much.”

Who is this crinkly caricature, this $600 slipper of a man who claimed to be a billionaire until Forbes revealed that he was counting investors' money as his own? Why is he still on this rocky detour through government, when he could sail into retirement on a fortune built years ago by flipping capsized companies?

AD
AD

Ross says he felt the call to public service, and “saw an opportunity to make a real change in the lives of Americans whose suffering has been ignored.” He loves his Washington job, and President Trump views him as an older-brother figure, according to Shannon Donnelly, society editor for the Palm Beach Daily News.

“Wilbur’s a very smart man who knows when Donald is making a mistake, and may quietly advise,” Donnelly says. “He’s just a guy who’s focused on getting the task at hand done, and his task at hand now is helping Donald Trump through his presidency. And he’s going to do it for as long as Donald will keep him.”

As a bankruptcy maestro who preferred the term “phoenix” to “vulture,” Ross helped Trump retain ownership in his collapsing Atlantic City casino nearly 30 years ago. Now Ross’s job appears to be restructuring presidential assets: Trump’s term is not a free fall into constitutional chaos but an economic triumph for all people! Ross’s Twitter account gushes about GDP growth and rising U.S. exports. In speeches this summer, he trumpeted the economic importance of minority-owned businesses and claimed that tariffs have been “instrumental” in rebuilding American steel and aluminum industries.

AD
AD

But Commerce is more than just bragging about the virility of American business. It’s the smallest executive department, budget-wise, but it performs a wide array of crucial public services. The department develops picture after picture of our daily lives, through the National Weather Service, and a broader portrait of the country itself, through the decennial census. Its bureaus work with satellites and California salmon, patents and cybersecurity, climate change, and the 5G spectrum. It guides disaster aid to fisheries.

“It’s always with the fish,” says one former Commerce official. “Members of Congress will always ask about the fish.”

Wilbur Ross has never fully appreciated this kaleidoscope of missions, according to current and former officials who either weren’t authorized to speak publicly or requested anonymity to speak frankly, and instead thinks of himself as a trade czar and champion of the economy. This ethos, paired with his aloofness, has not been endearing within the department.

AD
AD

“He’s been completely absent,” the current department official says. “I think he’s protecting his relationship with Trump. There’s been so much smoke around him that everyone’s assumed he was leaving, and he just keeps going on.”

Ross strongly disputed this article’s negative characterizations of his demeanor and tenure, describing them in a written response as “baseless,” “nonsense,” “silly” and “ridiculous.”

“Under my leadership, the Department of Commerce has notched unprecedented wins for the American people,” Ross wrote. “During my time in office, I have taken an active role in the operations of all the Department’s bureaus.” He then listed his accomplishments, including the reinvigoration of the Office of Space Commerce (apparently there is such a thing), the “unprecedented” fines imposed on Chinese telecom giant ZTE, and the vigorous travel schedule he has kept in service of “advancing the interests of U.S. businesses and workers.”

AD
AD

And yet the media keep insinuating that Ross is a tired old man on his last legs. “The decline and fall of Wilbur Ross” was the headline on an Axios story, which reported how Trump thinks that Ross had “lost his step.” That was a full 20 months ago. He’s still around, sometimes as human furniture in a display of officialdom, sometimes as a character that Dickens might’ve imagined. In January, during the government shutdown, Ross wondered aloud why federal employees were going to food banks; couldn’t they take out short-term loans to fill their stomachs? In July, he stood beside Trump in the Rose Garden, mute and expressionless, as the president lamented his sunk census effort.

Asked for comment, the White House dismissed this article as “another attempt to editorially smear, shame, and slander a Trump Administration official based on rumors and no-name sourcing.” It credited Ross with keeping American businesses competitive and “aggressively” pursuing Trump’s trade agenda.

“The President has complete confidence in Wilbur Ross’ leadership of Commerce, where the Secretary has carried out the department’s mission with a focus on safeguarding American jobs and prioritizing the American worker,” said deputy White House press secretary Judd Deere in a statement, which also referred to Ross as “energetic and resourceful.”

AD
AD

Last week, during part of Trump’s address to the United Nations General Assembly, Ross’s eyes were closed, perhaps in deep concentration, perhaps in light slumber. Social media flared with mockery. A day later, during a Trump news conference, a reporter tweeted a photo of Ross with his eyes closed again.

“This is just silly,” tweeted Ross’s official account in response. “Don’t you have something better to do, like report on [Trump’s] enormous successes?

At a time when the president of the United States is facing an impeachment inquiry, maybe the commerce secretary should be the least of our concerns. What does it matter if he dozes off from time to time? And Wilbur Ross, for all his personal baggage, was never an ideologue or a reckless incompetent. He was not attempting to dismantle the administrative state from within or launching a new front in the culture wars, as some of Trump's other political appointees seemed to be doing.

“There were wackos at EPA and Interior and we were like, ‘Okay, where’s our wacko?’ ” says the current Commerce official, referring to the presidential transition in 2017. “And it never happened. . . . Ross didn’t blow anything up. But when it came down to protecting the president, he had to. It’s the only way he survives.”

For example: Earlier this month, when President Trump was excoriated for tweeting inaccurately about a hurricane forecast, Ross reportedly got a call from the White House; soon after, NOAA issued a statement giving Trump cover and undermining the government’s own weather experts. That added insult to the injury of the census saga, according to some officials, who worry about the impact of his actions on the integrity of Commerce’s work.

“It’s awful,” says one of the former Commerce officials, describing what he hears from colleagues who remain at the department. “He has completely lost the trust of the building and staff are just holding on, waiting for it to be over.”

Ross rejects the gossip of “disgruntled” former employees and notes that Commerce ranks third among large agencies in the Partnership for Public Service’s best places to work in the government.

Trust is central to the criticism of Ross. The census redraws the contours of democratic representation and the electoral college, and guides how the government allocates $675 billion. Its impact on American life is profound and long-term, a centerpiece of any commerce secretary’s legacy. Critics wonder whether Ross is a reliable overseer of that mission and point to evidence that the citizenship question was part of an effort to discourage immigrants and undocumented residents from being counted, therefore yielding congressional redistricting favorable to Republicans.

“He’s in charge of hiring half a million part-time census workers to count hard-to-reach populations,” says a senior Democratic aide for the House Oversight Committee who spoke on the condition of anonymity to comment on an ongoing investigation. “If he had an intent to keep people away from the census, Congress needs to know.”

Steven Dillingham, director of the Census Bureau, says that Ross “is a steadfast champion” of its mission, and that “his leadership has been invaluable in terms of securing funding and support for the 2020 Census.” Ross says it’s his “unwavering desire” to ensure that the census is completed accurately.

The House Oversight Committee is investigating Ross on multiple fronts. Committee Chairman Elijah E. Cummings (D-Md.) sent a letter to Ross on Sept. 9 that scolded him for stonewalling an inquiry into his potential conflicts of interest. In another letter about the census, Cummings wrote about Ross’s failure to comply with subpoenas: “Your actions are part of a pattern.”

So perhaps it shouldn’t come as a surprise that Ross has used private email to conduct government business.

From a nongovernment account, Ross has sent or received official correspondence about discussions with the European Commission for Trade, a U.S. ambassador’s meeting with German car manufacturers, a dinner featuring the ambassador of Japan, what appears to be an event related to billionaire businessman Bill Koch, and meeting requests from the far-right Internet troll Charles Johnson. The nonprofit watchdog Democracy Forward recently obtained the emails through a Freedom of Information Act lawsuit and is asking the government for a direct search of Ross’s personal email.

“Some of these emails indicate that Secretary Ross illegally conducted government business on his private account,” Democracy Forward’s press secretary, Charisma Troiano, said in a statement. Ross told The Post: “These hysterical, baseless allegations of illegal activity are without merit.”

But for a brief moment at Washington National Cathedral, during the Government Hall of Fame Gala on Sept. 19, all was genteel. Wilbur Ross wore a midnight-blue tux with what appeared to be panda studs, and his name was uttered among those of Clara Barton, Neil Armstrong and Elliot Richardson. Richardson, who served as attorney general under President Richard Nixon, was described in the gala program as having passed “one of the greatest ethics tests in the history of government” when he resigned rather than take a rotten order from the president.

Ross wasn’t receiving an award for good government service, but he was conferring one. From a dais under the cathedral’s soaring arches, as guests supped on seared salmon and champagne, he gave a short tribute to his predecessor, Mineta, who held the Commerce job for 25 fewer months than Ross has.

“Every day as I walk by his official portrait, right outside my office,” Ross said, “I am inspired by his oft-repeated admonition: ‘Don’t run away from who you are.’ ”