There must be some reason Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross repeatedly lies so baldly in the service of a man who certainly hasn’t done him any favors.
Maybe it’s because Ross is a near-billionaire and figures he can get away with it. Maybe President Trump has something on him. I’m not really sure, but of all the rotating cast of dissembling buffoons in the Trump administration, the once-anonymous Ross is putting in a serious bid to be the biggest liar of them all.
Ross’ greatest scandal, so far at least, remains the U.S. Census, and his clear lies under oath to Congress. Though that story has mostly gone away, the investigations haven’t, and Ross’ fate is very much up for grabs.
But now, in a virtual parody of a government scandal, it appears that Ross threatened to fire senior employees at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association (NOAA)—which, due to Richard Nixon’s dislike of his interior secretary in 1970, is part of the Commerce Department—for daring to tell the truth about the weather and contradict the tweeter in chief.
This is one humiliation too far. Ross should resign immediately, and if he doesn’t, the House of Representatives should impeach this serial liar, for the sake of its own integrity.
At first, the latest scandal was laughable.
Trump, in an obvious and actually quite forgivable mistake, tweeted on Sept. 1 that “In addition to Florida - South Carolina, North Carolina, Georgia, and Alabama, will most likely be hit (much) harder than anticipated.” That was careless, and 80 percent correct.
But the NOAA is a scientific agency in the business of preparing Americans for hurricanes and similar potential disasters. So a few minutes after Trump’s erroneous tweet, the Birmingham office of the National Weather Service tweeted that, actually, Alabama was in the clear.
Now, in any rational administration, the president’s initial error could simply be corrected, and no one would bat an eyelash. OK, he added in a state by mistake. It’s really not a big deal, as long as the facts are now clear and no one in Alabama is panicking because a hurricane is bearing down on them.
But in the dystopian carnival that is this administration, Trump is never wrong, and so three days later, an NOAA map was produced that showed that Alabama had been in the path of the hurricane. Oh, except that map had obviously been altered—literally, with a Sharpie marker.
A Sharpie. It really says a lot about the Trump White House’s confidence in Fox News and the further-right “media” that they felt like they could get away with that.
Meanwhile, The New York Times reports that Ross threatened to fire top NOAA officials if they didn’t back the White House’s bogus story instead of the scientific truth of what happened. (The Commerce Department has denied the Times report.)
Here’s where the scandal turns from farce to tragedy. All of us, every single American, rely on the NOAA and the National Weather Service. From planning a Saturday picnic to evacuating our homes in case of disaster, we depend on these agencies doing their jobs. They are, in large part, public safety agencies.
To lie about a weather report when lives are on the line betrays the very core of that mission, not to mention the public trust in government scientists. What’s next, an anti-vaxxer surgeon general?
Nor, of course, is this Ross’ first adventure with lying about reality.
In March 2018, Ross lied to Congress, under oath, that the Department of Justice had requested a citizenship question be added to the census, when in fact the idea came from Steve Bannon and Kris Kobach in the White House (and, ultimately, the now-deceased Republican operative Thomas Hofeller). Ross also lied about having met with Bannon and Kobach at all.
And he lied about when the decision to add the question was made, saying it was made in December 2017, when Ross’ own emails establish that he decided in March, before the sham public comment period.
Then Ross lied in the lawsuit about the census.
Then he refused to answer more than 100 Democrats’ questions in a marathon seven-hour congressional hearing.
The investigations into these lies, both in Congress and in the lawsuit, are still going. Ross could very well up behind bars.
And for his loyalty, Trump has reportedly mulled firing him.
Which prompts the question: Why is he doing this?
It’s not like he needs the money. Although, like his boss, Ross has greatly overstated his wealth in the past, he’s still worth north of $600 million, thanks to a long career as “The Bankruptcy King,” buying up distressed companies as a “vulture capitalist.”
He’s also 81 years old. Isn’t he too old for this stuff?
Dan Alexander, a dogged reporter at Forbes, has been tracking Ross for a long time now. He’s tracked how Ross inflated his net worth from $600 million to $2.5 billion. He’s tracked how Ross lied about failing to adequately divest from his investment holdings (taking a cue from Trump, of course).
And last year, a Forbes investigation—in part of the scandalous “Paradise Papers” containing records of the investments and tax-dodges of the ultra-wealthy—found that Ross still holds stakes in “companies co-owned by the Chinese government, a shipping firm tied to Vladimir Putin’s inner circle, [and] a Cypriot bank reportedly caught up in the Robert Mueller investigation.”
Are Ross’ continued entanglements with the oligarchs of China and Russia related to his bizarre willingness to humiliate himself at the behest of Trump?
Or is it just Ross’ and Trump’s 25-year-long bromance? (The two met during one of Trump’s bankruptcy proceedings, when Ross was representing Trump’s creditors—an unlikely setting to strike up a friendship, to be sure.)
We don’t know. But whatever the reason, the decision should no longer be Ross’ to make.
A mistaken tweet about a hurricane is a simple error, but lying, falsifying records, and compromising the integrity of a scientific agency is not. Nor is lying under oath about a census modification aimed, it is now generally acknowledged, at advantaging white people in the drawing of electoral districts.
Congress has the power to impeach Cabinet secretaries. And while a Republican-led Senate is unlikely to go along, the Democrat-led House must now act. Impeaching Trump may be politically suicidal—but impeaching Ross is an ethical no-brainer.
It’s bizarre that Ross is still bending over for Trump. But the time has come for him to bow out.