U.S. Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross came to President Trump's defense Friday, arguing that CEOs were wrong to quit the White House business advisory councils in the wake of Trump's controversial Charlottesville remarks.
“I think what’s sad is for business leaders to give up an opportunity to influence policy over some singular issue with which they disagree,” Ross said in an interview with the author of The Washington Post's Daily 202 newsletter, James Hohmann. “I don't think that's very well considered.”
Trump received widespread condemnation after he blamed “both sides” in Charlottesville, appearing to drew an equivalence between white supremacists and counterprotesters. A number of high-profile business leaders resigned from Trump's CEO advisory groups in the days that followed, and he disbanded the councils as more chief executives planned to resign en masse.
Ross has not said anything publicly about Charlottesville. On Friday, his only remarks on the topic were that he thought CEOs were out of line to resign from the Strategy and Policy Forum and the Manufacturing Council.
Most of the CEOs who left “didn’t vote for the president to begin with,” Ross said, indicating he thought it was a political move. “Elon Musk is not exactly a right-wing person.”
Musk, head of car company Tesla, was one of the first to quit Trump's councils, before the Charlottesville comments. He and Disney CEO Bob Iger left in June after Trump pulled the United States out of the Paris climate agreement. Most CEOs remained on the councils this summer, arguing that it was better to be have a voice at the table than not, but they changed their minds after Charlottesville, triggering a mass exodus from the advisory groups.
Ross's comments Friday defending Trump are in sharp contrast to those of Gary Cohn, head of the National Economic Council. After initially facing criticism for staying quiet, Cohn told the Financial Times the administration “can and must do better in consistently and unequivocally condemning these groups.” Cohn reportedly drafted a letter of resignation but chose to stay to work on policies such as an overhaul of the tax code that he believes are critical to the United States' success.
Trump places a high value on loyalty, and he is reportedly so angry with Cohn that he might fire him. At the tax reform rally in Missouri, Trump took time to point out Ross and Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin to the crowd, but he did not mention Cohn, even though he was also in attendance and is one of the top White House negotiators on the tax code.
The dissolution of Trump's advisory councils was the latest example of tension between the White House and CEOs after Charlottesville, but Ross dismissed that tension as media fodder.
“In general, business community morale is really good. The regulatory reliefs that have been granted by this administration have been extremely well received,” Ross said. Tax reform is the next priority, and Ross says he hears overwhelming support for that among business leaders.
“We would be far better off as a country to have a lower base rate and far fewer complications,” Ross said. He decline to elaborate on how low the rate should go because the details are now “largely in the hands of Congress.”
Ross is a close adviser to the president and was early to back Trump during the campaign. Trump tapped Ross to be one of his economic advisers during the campaign. Ross co-wrote a paper with Peter Navarro, now the head of the White House National Trade Council, arguing that trade was hurting the United States and calling for much tighter restrictions on imports.
Before joining the Trump administration, Ross was a billionaire investor who often bought distressed companies on the cheap and tried to resuscitate them for a profit. At Commerce, a sprawling agency that he compared to a “conglomerate,” Ross oversees everything from trade policy to the team that monitors hurricanes.
One of Ross's biggest upcoming tasks is overseeing the 2020 Census. He says he is “actively searching” for a new director and that he would probably choose a businessman for the job because the census is “huge management challenge.”