Trump weighs ousting Commerce chief Wilbur Ross after census defeat

Some White House officials expect the Cabinet secretary, who has known the president for years, to depart as soon as this summer.
Image: US-POLITICS-CENSUS-TRUMP
President Donald Trump, flanked by Secretary of Commerce Wilbur Ross and Attorney General William Barr, delivers remarks on citizenship and the census in the Rose Garden on July 11, 2019.Nicholas Kamm / AFP - Getty Images

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By Hans Nichols, Kayla Tausche, CNBC and Hallie Jackson

WASHINGTON — President Donald Trump has told aides and allies that he is considering removing Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross after a stinging Supreme Court defeat on adding a citizenship question to the census, according to multiple people familiar with the conversations.

While Trump has previously expressed frustration with Ross, 81, in particular over failed trade negotiations, Ross' long personal relationship with the president has allowed him to keep his job. And after the departure of Labor Secretary Alex Acosta, the Cabinet’s only Hispanic who resigned Friday amid questions about his role in a controversial 2008 plea agreement with sex offender Jeffrey Epstein, Ross may yet receive another reprieve.

But some White House officials expect Ross to be the next Cabinet secretary to depart, possibly as soon as this summer, according to advisers and officials.

Frustrated by Ross' leadership of the Census Bureau, which is within the Commerce Department, Trump has been making calls to allies outside the White House musing about replacing Ross.

The White House declined comment.

Asked about the president's unhappiness at a Made in America showcase at the White House Monday, Ross did not respond directly, saying "we're here to celebrate" American-made products. Asked about the president's feelings about Ross' job performance Monday afternoon, Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin told reporters, "I have every reason to think Secretary Ross is doing a good job, I've never heard anything otherwise. Secretary Ross has been an important part of the trade team."

Earlier in the day, White House National Economic Director Larry Kudlow told reporters at the White House that "Wilbur is an old and dear friend of mine. I’m going to make this very clear: he's done a great job at the Commerce Department."

Ross is one of the original members of a Cabinet that has seen a historically high turnover, but his exit would mark the first departure of an agency head whom Trump knew well before entering politics.

Trump and Ross met — and bonded — through the former's Atlantic City casino hotel bankruptcies in the 1990s, with Ross representing some of Trump's creditors. For more than 25 years, the two socialized across marriages and states, with both owning nearby residences in Manhattan and Palm Beach, Florida. In June of 2016, Ross, a registered Democrat, endorsed Trump for president, saying, "We need a more radical, new approach to government."

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On election night, Trump promised to recruit only the "best and brightest" to serve in his administration, but he has soured on much of his Cabinet. He called his former Secretary of State Rex Tillerson "dumb as a rock," compared his former Attorney General Jeff Sessions to "Mr. Magoo," and declared that former Defense Secretary Jim Mattis was "not too good" at his job.

The president has suggested to allies he wants a more hard-charging leader as the Commerce secretary, despite having once talked up Ross as a "killer." However, there's no indication the president has reached out directly to potential replacements for Ross.

And while Trump has not hesitated to part ways with members of his Cabinet, he is often slow to replace them, leading to acting secretaries running the departments of Defense and Homeland Security and now Labor. Across the Cabinet and key agencies, there are more than 20 officials with acting titles at top leadership positions.

Before the Supreme Court's 5-4 decision barring the administration from including the citizenship question on the 2020 census last month, Trump stood by Ross through a string of controversies, including when the wealthy Ross submitting a report on his investments to the Office of Government Ethics that was declared "not accurate."

Trump initially thought that the Supreme Court's decision offered him a legal path to add the citizenship question and publicly contradicted administration officials when he vowed to fight on. But then last week, he abruptly changed course and effectively conceded defeat, saying the administration would find other ways to determine the citizenship of the U.S. population. Meanwhile, the House was threatening to hold Ross and Attorney General William Barr in contempt of Congress.

Further evidence of a growing chasm between Ross and the president was a rare public dissent on policy last week. The Commerce Department has concluded that uranium imports pose a national security threat, a conclusion similar to those that resulted in tariffs on imported steel, aluminum and — potentially — European cars. But in a memo late Friday night, President Trump said “I do not concur with the Secretary’s finding.”

Ross is no stranger to controversy and has frequently landed in hot water with the White House for negotiating deals with China that were perceived to be weak, eliciting ire from lawmakers in both parties after slapping tariffs on allies, and saying during a government shutdown that he didn't understand the financial perils federal workers might face during the holidays.

Asked by NBC News on the White House South Lawn on Friday if Ross had disappointed him on the census, Trump responded, "No, he didn't let me down."

Kevin Manning, Commerce Department press secretary, said, "Currently, the Secretary is overseeing the Department's response to Hurricane Barry, including NOAA’s extremely accurate track and intensity forecast. On Friday, the Secretary joined the President on his visit to Wisconsin and Ohio, and will continue to work on behalf of the American people and the President's America First agenda. He has shepherded the Department of Commerce into a new era, where, under the President's leadership and direction, we have better supported American businesses from unfair trading practices and have reinforced our national and economic security at long last."

Ross' future as the Commerce secretary depends on several competing factors, including White House and presidential frustration with the Commerce Department, concern about the optics of dismissing a member of the Cabinet so soon after the resignation of Acosta, and Trump's personal relationship with Ross, according to officials and advisers.

Late last year, when media reports suggested Trump would replace Ross by the end of the year, Ross insisted that his job was secure. "There is no truth to that whatsoever," he said on CNBC.

Ross would be the 10th Senate-confirmed member of the Cabinet to leave the administration, in addition to dozens of senior officials, including five communications directors, two chiefs of staff, two national security advisers, two press secretaries, the FBI director, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, the National Economic Council director, the Small Business administrator and the chair of the Council of Economic Advisers.

But now that the Census Bureau has begun printing the forms without the citizenship question included, Trump is less reliant on Ross to conduct the census or defend the citizenship question in lawsuits, according to officials.

Another factor weighing on the decision to keep or discard Ross: Finding a suitable replacement.

One potential replacement is Ray Washburne, a Texas restaurateur and real estate developer whom Trump appointed to lead the Overseas Private Investment Corporation, which helps American businesses invest in emerging markets.

Washburne was confirmed by the Senate to lead OPIC and currently sits on the president's Intelligence Advisory Board. He splits his time between Washington and Dallas, where he recently purchased the former headquarters of the Dallas Morning News.

Trump has considered replacing Ross at least twice before during his 2½ year tenure, according to administration officials.

At those times, the shortlist for his replacement included former Small Business Administration chief Linda McMahon, acting chief of staff Mick Mulvaney, and U.S. Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer. An outside adviser to the White House said Lighthizer is not likely to leave his post anytime soon because several ongoing trade disputes — most importantly with China — remain unresolved.