WASHINGTON — Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross on Thursday afternoon defended his take on the financial challenges facing furloughed federal workers after saying earlier in the day that he did not "understand" why they might need help from homeless shelters and food banks.
Ross said in a second interview that his intention had been to make sure government workers were aware that loans could be an option as the shutdown continues.
"We're aware, painfully aware, that there are hardships inflicted on the individual workers,” Ross said on Bloomberg. “All I was trying to do was make sure that they are aware that there are possible other things that can help somewhat mitigate their problems."
The remarks come hours after Ross was asked on CNBC about reports that some federal workers were relying on charity for essentials as the shutdown enters its second month. He responded by suggesting that furloughed employees should borrow money to make ends meet while the shutdown continues.
“Banks and credit unions should be making credit available to them,” Ross said. “Now true, the people might have to pay a little bit of interest, but the idea that it's paycheck or zero is not a really valid idea.”
On the CNBC interview, Ross also rejected the notion that the government shutdown — now entering day 34, the longest in U.S. history — was damaging the country’s reputation or economy in the long term.
“I think that is a great deal of hyperbole,” Ross said. “We’ve had shutdowns, albeit for not such a long period as we've been thus far, but put in the perspective: You're talking about 800,000 workers. And while I feel sorry for the individuals that have hardship cases, 800,000 workers if they never got their pay — which is not the case, they will eventually get it — but if they never got it, you're talking about a third of a percent on our GDP.”
Although furloughed workers will eventually receive back pay when the government reopens, many contract workers will not be able to make up for missed work.
Democrats were quick to slam Ross's comments as out of touch with the reality that many furloughed employees face.
"I guess anybody at the top of the food chain is totally tone deaf," Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., told reporters at the Capitol.
Sen. Kristen Gillibrand, D-N.Y., a 2020 presidential candidate, took to Twitter, writing “this administration—stocked with out-of-touch, powerful elites—fundamentally does not understand the struggles working families face.”
"I don’t know, is this the 'let them eat cake' attitude or 'call your father for money?'” Rep. Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., responded when asked about Ross's remark.
Even President Donald Trump needled his commerce secretary, telling reporters later in the day that while he hadn't seen Ross's original comment, "I do understand perhaps he should have said it differently."
Ross, who's worth an estimated $860 million, wasn't the only administration official to try to walk back comments about government workers.
Top economic adviser Larry Kudlow, whose staff has had to work without pay during the shutdown, said his people were "volunteering."
"I've met with my individual staff members and God bless them, they're working for free. They're volunteering. But they do it because they believe government service is honorable and they believe in President Trump," he told reporters.
When pressed on how they can be "volunteers" when they've been told to work despite not being paid, the normally affable Kudlow said, "You know what I'm saying. It's very clear."
He continued, "whatever semantic game you think you're going to play with me, and I'm usually an easy-going guy, give them credit, okay? They honor us. They honor us by their service. I don't care whether you're a Republican or a Democrat. I mean that sincerely. They honor us."
Trump's daughter-in-law, Lara Trump, meanwhile, appeared on Fox News and Fox Business News to walk back comments she'd made Monday where she said government workers were dealing with "a little bit of pain."
“It’s not fair to you and we all get that, but this is so much bigger than any one person,” she told Bold TV. "It is a little bit of pain, but it’s going to be for the future of our country, and their children and their grandchildren and generations after them will thank them for their sacrifice."
Trump told Fox coverage of her remarks was "disingenuous."
"I think that this is an awful thing that these people are having to go through.And anything misconstrued otherwise was really not at all — not what I intended," she told FBN. "I am very empathetic to anyone who is struggling right now."