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House Dems to test Wilbur Ross’ ‘survivor’ status

Secretary of Commerce Wilbur Ross will appear before the House Oversight Committee about his decision to add a question about citizenship to the U.S. Census. | Win McNamee/Getty Images

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Some Democrats expect an apology on Thursday from Donald Trump’s 81-year-old Commerce secretary, who has shrewdly navigated talk of his ouster.

He’s been accused of flouting federal ethics rules, adding an illegal citizenship question to the 2020 Census and even falling asleep in meetings. Rumors of his pending ouster have been floating around the White House for months and at least two administration officials have eyed his job.

Yet somehow, Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross is still standing, having outlasted many embattled colleagues in President Donald Trump’s never-ending Game of Thrones and maintained his grip on a Cabinet post with deep influence over U.S. economic and trade policy.

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In interviews, more than a half-dozen administration officials and others close to the White House marveled at the 81-year-old Commerce secretary’s staying power. The wealthy former investor has hung onto his job despite repeated griping from the president himself and an onslaught of negative news stories — amplified by his opponents inside and outside the administration.

They credit his survival to his unique relationship with Trump and his family, one rooted in the social circles of Palm Beach, where Ross and his wife keep a home, as well as his ideological alignment with the president on the central issue of trade.

“Even though he’s had missteps, Wilbur has never really allowed, at least for any sustained period of time, any real daylight between himself and the president,” one former administration official told POLITICO, adding, “Wilbur has support from the Mar-a-Lago set. That’s not an irrelevant constituency for the president.”

But Ross’ relationship with Trump will face a tough new test on Thursday, when he appears before the House Oversight Committee in what promises to be a confrontational hearing about his decision to add a question about citizenship to the U.S. Census, which his department oversees.

White House officials said they will be monitoring the hearing closely, aware that a misstep by Ross — prone to out-of-touch remarks in television interviews — will further inflame the uproar over the citizenship question, which Democrats and watchdog groups suspect is intended to discourage responses from nonwhite citizens, especially Latinos, and thus diminish their political representation. Ross also faces accusations that he misled Congress in earlier testimony on the subject.

A day before the hearing, Democrats broadcast their anger at Ross over the citizenship question.

“If I were him, I would consider starting with an apology, and then see where we go from there. Because if he comes in combative on this, it’s going to be a really long day,” said Rep. Raja Krishnamoorthi (D-Ill.), a member of the Oversight panel.

Some sources close to the White House said the census furor might actually have bolstered Ross’ job security, noting that firing him now would be politically fraught for Trump.

“He’s a survivor,” said one Republican operative who knows Ross. “Wilbur’s going to stay out of sight, do his social thing and hang out in Palm Beach and the salon they have in D.C. until the census thing blows over.”

Trump’s frustration with Ross has long been an open secret. The president has chastised him in front of other aides and questioned his ability to drive a hard bargain with trade partners like Mexico and China. Over time, Ross has assumed a diminished role in key trade negotiations.

Yet Trump has stopped short of banishing Ross, and there are recent signs of his enduring influence. Ross attended last week’s American Enterprise Institute’s annual World Forum in Sea Island, Ga., as well as a Republican National Committee retreat in Palm Beach. He returned to Washington on Air Force One with the president.

Maxine Waters

“You wouldn’t go to that event if you were on the chopping block,” said a Republican who spotted him at the RNC gathering.

And administration officials said Ross has shrewdly taken care to be a regular presence at Trump’s side, whether it’s at the White House or at Mar-a-Lago.

“There’s been a running joke: Where’s Waldo? Where’s Wilbur? You can spot him in nearly every photo from events at the White House,” one of the former administration officials said. “Whether it related to Commerce or not, Wilbur is always there.”

Two senior administration officials told POLITICO that there are no current plans to fire Ross — although, given Trump’s mercurial attitude toward his advisers, neither could rule out the possibility that he might eventually be canned.

“I don’t know what to believe,” one Republican close to the administration said. “Information is centralized in the president’s head.”

Trump often leaves senior officials to dangle in uncertainty for months before suddenly pushing them out, blindsiding even his closest advisers. Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke and Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Scott Pruitt were removed only after a cascade of scandals infuriated the president and his team, who came to believe their behavior was becoming a distraction. Some in the White House don’t think the firestorm surrounding Ross has reached Zinke or Pruitt proportions — at least not yet.

Wilbur Ross and Mike Pence

Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross listens to Vice President Mike Pence during a White House meeting June 18, 2018. | Susan Walsh/AP Photo

Still, the uncertainty over Ross’ future has sparked quiet discussions about who might replace him. At the top of the list: Linda McMahon, head of the Small Business Administration, who has told associates she’d be interested in the job if it opens up. A McMahon spokeswoman did not respond to a request for comment.

Acting White House chief of staff Mick Mulvaney has also expressed interest in becoming Commerce secretary. Mulvaney’s associates insist that he is not trying to oust Ross and has expressed interest in the Commerce job only as a “theoretical exercise.”

Asked for comment, the Commerce Department touted Ross’ track record. “Secretary Ross has implemented the President’s policies at the Department of Commerce and has made good on his promise to help enforce fair and reciprocal trade, build a more resilient economy for all Americans and streamline regulations that limit our country’s growth in the space industry,” the department said in a statement.

While some Trump officials — notably Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen — can work their way into the president’s good graces with strong television performances, Ross has done himself no favors on that front.

In two much-mocked cable television interviews, critics said Ross played into the caricature of an aloof, out-of-touch billionaire.

During the recent government shutdown, he drew scorn and ridicule for telling CNBC that he didn’t understand why some federal workers were relying on food banks and encouraging workers to take out loans to make up for the paychecks they had been missing.

In a television interview last year, Ross had sought to downplay the impact of Trump’s tariffs by arguing that a resulting increase in the price of aluminum would be negligible.

“Well, I just bought this can today at a 7-Eleven down here, and the price was $ 1.99. So who in the world is going be bothered by six-tenths of a cent?” he asked, holding up a can of soup. Campbell’s executives later said the tariffs were a factor in the company’s financial problems.

Ross’ status in the administration also took a hit after Axios reported last year that he sometimes fell asleep in meetings, an allegation that a person with direct knowledge confirmed to POLITICO. The story contributed to the perception, held by some of Ross’ critics in the administration, that the aging billionaire is “past his prime,” as Trump once told his aides.

But Ross faces much bigger problems than his cable news gaffes or proclivity for snoozing. At issue on Thursday is whether Ross lied about the process that led to adding a citizenship question to the census, which watchdog groups believe will result in a large decrease in minority response rates. Such an undercount could have wide-ranging implications since census data are used to determine representation in Congress and how federal funds are distributed.

“It’s really the backbone of knowing who we are and where to send resources and how to divvy up our political system,” said Danielle Lang, co-director for voting rights and redistricting at the Campaign Legal Center, a nonpartisan watchdog group that strongly opposes the citizenship question. “When we have an inaccurate census, all of that falls by the wayside.”

Chuck Schumer

Last week, a federal judge ruled that Ross had broken the law and violated the Constitution by adding the citizenship question. The judge said Ross, who initially said he was acting at the urging of the Justice Department, misrepresented his reasons for pushing the citizenship question, asserting that the Commerce secretary engaged in “a cynical search to find some reason, any reason, or an agency request to justify that preordained result.”

In addition to the citizenship question, Ross has also come under fire for inaccurately filling out his financial disclosure forms and has faced conflict of interest and insider trading allegations. In February, the Office of Government Ethics declined to certify Ross’ 2018 financial disclosure report because he inaccurately said he had sold BankUnited stock.

Yet, despite all of Ross’ headaches, the Commerce secretary has still managed to maintain a relationship with the president. One former White House official said Ross has cultivated strong ties to Ivanka Trump and Jared Kushner, the president’s daughter and son-in-law. Ross and his wife, Hilary Geary Ross, have frequently socialized with Trump and first lady Melania Trump at Mar-a-Lago.

Ross has also benefited from the fact that he is ideologically aligned with the president on trade. Though he has at times been sidelined, Ross has played a central role in implementing some of Trump’s signature trade policies, including his tariffs on steel and aluminum imports. Ross also led an internal review of possible tariffs on foreign automobiles, a divisive proposal that many of Trump’s advisers oppose.

Andrew Desiderio contributed to this reports.

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