Trump’s commerce secretary reportedly stole $120 million because of course he did

This is what happens when you don't divest your assets before public service.

U.S. Secretary of Commerce Wilbur Ross speaks at the SelectUSA 2018 Investment Summit June 22, 2018 in National Harbor, Maryland. (Photo Credit: Win McNamee/Getty Images)
U.S. Secretary of Commerce Wilbur Ross speaks at the SelectUSA 2018 Investment Summit June 22, 2018 in National Harbor, Maryland. (Photo Credit: Win McNamee/Getty Images)

The role Wilbur Ross, President Trump’s Commerce Secretary, plays in the Trump administration may appear to be a sleepy one, but it does reveal that graft and corruption can run both uphill and downhill.

An investigation by Forbes’ Dan Alexander found that Ross stole and siphoned millions of dollars in assets from his business associates. Alexander’s conclusion: “all told, these allegations — which sparked lawsuits, reimbursements and an SEC fine — come to more than $120 million.”

The investigation, which consulted 21 of Ross’ close business associates, came two weeks after Ross settled with a former employee, who accused Ross of using “bogus paperwork” to try to cover up the theft of his assets from a private equity fund, rather than face a $4 million lawsuit. Other lawsuits in the range of tens of millions of dollars allege that Ross illegally cut his associates out of their interests or imposed improper investment fees.


Other former colleagues told Forbes that Ross would steal handfuls of sweetener packets from restaurants, fail to pay house cleaners, and once promised to donate $1 million to charity without following through.

Ross’ tenure running the Commerce Department has not been filled with valor or self-awareness. He joined the cabinet, after Trump promised not to appoint trade negotiators who were political donors, as a big GOP donor alongside a career of leveraging buyouts of distressed companies.

Last week, Ross dismissed reports that some companies could face a $50 billion hit as a result of Trump’s trade war, saying $50 billion isn’t a very large number. In March, he waved around soup and soda cans on national television in an attempt to minimize the $175 price increases Americans would face after tariffs.

He has admitted to shorting stocks months after attaining office. Ross has owned stakes in Chinese government-owned companies, a shipping company called Navigator with close ties to Russian President Vladimir Putin, and banks that are under federal government investigation. The New York Times reported last month: “Three business days after Mr. Ross was contacted by The New York Times for a forthcoming article about those ties, he took out a short position valued at between $100,000 and $250,000 on Navigator’s stock — essentially a bet that the stock’s value would decrease — putting him in a position to potentially profit from negative news about the company.” These are not just ethical red flags, but potentially huge conflicts of interest.


A year and a half after joining Trump’s cabinet, Ross eventually agreed to sell his remaining stocks after the Office of Government Ethics informed him that even after several instances of omitting information and lying on his forms, he had failed to abide by his own ethics agreement, which required him to divest himself from all holdings.

It’s not normal for the Commerce Secretary to fail to divest from companies whose stock value could seriously impact his own wealth or the future wealth of his family.

It’s even less normal for the president to fail to divest himself of his own assets, including his own family business inextricably tied to his personal brand and that of his children, some of whom also work in the White House.

Domestic interests and foreign governments with business before the federal government regularly tout their patronage of Trump properties, turning payments to a business that caters to the ostentatiously wealthy into access, conservative prestige, and apparent corruption.

This is what happens when public officials fail to divest themselves from their assets — however large they might be.

Ross, who Forbes had listed in previous years as being worth $2.9 billion, actually revealed a comparatively smaller net worth of $700 million last year when he had to cough up paperwork required to work for the federal government. Ross initially said that he had transferred $2 billion to a family account before submitting the filings, but Alexander concluded in a November 2017 report something which may not be entirely shocking: “That money never existed.”


Lying about one’s own material wealth is not a unique sin, but doing it on such an outrageous and public scale can mean business opportunities and more valuable branding for people like Ross, and his boss, Donald Trump.

Trump reportedly lied ostentatiously about his wealth to Forbes back in the the 1980s and 1990s because not only was he obsessed with the status of being on the Forbes list of the 400 wealthiest people in the country, but talking up his verbal fortune translated into additional wealth, access, and investments.

Ross appears cut from the same cloth. The Forbes investigation quoted former associates calling Ross a “pathological liar” and someone who would “push the edge of truthfulness and use whatever power he has to grab assets.”