Wilbur Ross's latest storm: Reports he threatened to fire officials over Dorian forecast

Christopher Wilson
Senior Writer
President Trump with Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross (Photo: Mark Wilson/Getty Images)

A report by the New York Times that Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross coerced officials in his agency to retroactively rewrite the forecast for Hurricane Dorian to support President Trump’s warning that it could hit Alabama is the latest in a series of embarrassments that have made the mild-mannered octogenarian one of the most controversial officials in the Cabinet.

According to the report, Ross threatened to fire employees at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration if they didn’t clean up a contradiction between the actual forecast earlier this month and Trump’s assertion that Alabama was in danger. According to the Times story, Ross called Neil Jacobs, the acting administrator of NOAA, demanding a retraction by the National Weather Service, which is overseen by NOAA. When Jacobs initially resisted, Ross told him that political hires at the organization — including Jacobs — would be fired if the contradiction wasn’t cleared up.

The Commerce Department denied any such action, with a spokesman telling the Times, “Secretary Ross did not threaten to fire any NOAA staff over forecasting and public statements about Hurricane Dorian.”

But whether or not Ross specifically threatened to fire anyone, the White House made its point when NOAA released an unsigned statement Friday contradicting its original forecast, saying in effect that Trump was correct. That development is now under examination by the Commerce Department’s Office of the Inspector General. In a statement Tuesday, Jacobs said, “Weather shouldn’t be a partisan issue.”

“If true, this is very disturbing,” said Sen. Jeanne Shaheen, D-N.H., of the reports that Ross threatened employees. “Threatening the careers of those who disagree with the president isn’t just a gross abuse of power, it’s a dangerous act of political interference that puts partisanship over scientific evidence and undermines serious public safety information.”

On Tuesday, the Union of Concerned Scientists called on Ross to step down, stating that “manipulating science based on politics is absolutely unacceptable” and that “ordering the National Weather Service to refrain from contradicting President Trump’s misinformation is a shocking breach of public trust.”

Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross (Photo: Aytug Can Sencar/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images)

The reported threats are the latest controversy to hit Ross, who is 81 and has been reported to fall asleep in meetings, irritating the president. A stark accusation came earlier this year when he was accused of lying under oath about the Trump administration’s attempts to add a citizenship question to the census. Ross initially told Congress that the question was added after a request from the Justice Department, but documents released during a lawsuit showed he had been in discussions with his staff on the issue for months before the DOJ request.

“I am mystified why nothing have [sic] been done in response to my months old request that we include the citizenship question. Why not?” wrote Ross in a March 2017 email. The DOJ request didn’t come until December of that year.

“Department of Justice, as you know, initiated the request for inclusion of the citizenship question,” said Ross during a March 2018 House Ways and Means Committee hearing. “Because it is from the Department of Justice, we are taking it very seriously, and we will issue a fulsome documentation of whatever conclusion we finally come to.”

Democrats pushed Ross at a March hearing about the origins and purpose of the citizenship question. Critics of the proposal, which was struck down repeatedly in federal court and didn’t make the 2020 questionnaire, said the Trump administration was hoping to dissuade immigrant communities from responding accurately due to fear of deportation, thus undercounting them in the drawing of congressional districts and school funding.

“Mr. Secretary, you lied to Congress,” said Rep. Lacy Clay, D-Mo. “You misled the American people, and you are complicit in the Trump administration’s intent to suppress the growing political power of the nonwhite population. You have already done great harm to the census in 2020, and you have zero credibility. And you should, in my opinion, resign.”

Ross said there was no “nefarious purpose,” adding, “I testified truthfully to the best of my ability in response to what my understanding of the questions were.”

Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross (Photo: Fatih Kurt/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images)

The commerce secretary, who was a financier before joining the Cabinet, has also faced accusations of inflating his wealth and of questionable business activities. Forbes magazine has dropped his net worth by more than $2 billion over the past two years, writing in 2017 that “it seems clear that Ross lied to us, the latest in an apparent sequence of fibs, exaggerations, omissions, fabrications and whoppers that have been going on with Forbes since 2004.” Bloomberg also lowered its estimate of Ross’s wealth, to $860 million, that same year.

But even if he doesn’t clear the bar as a billionaire, Ross’s public statements embody the worldview of the 0.001 percent. Rather than feed their families from food banks, government workers furloughed by the government shutdown in January should just take out a bank loan, he suggested.

Last year, the Times reported that Ross had bet against a shipping company’s stock shortly after the newspaper contacted him about a negative story. Ross denied the “unfounded allegations” of insider trading, but three congressional Democrats asked the Securities and Exchange Commission to launch an investigation into Ross’s deal.

Two months later, Forbes published a story alleging that Ross had siphoned off or misappropriated funds from various companies and associates over the years, a few million dollars at a time, totaling more than $120 million. According to the article, which was based on interviews with nearly two dozen associates, “If even half of the accusations are legitimate, the current United States secretary of commerce could rank among the biggest grifters in American history.”

In February, the Office of Government Ethics sent a letter refusing to certify Ross’s financial disclosure report, saying it was “not accurate.” According to the OGE, the commerce chief violated his ethics agreement by saying he had sold bank stock that other reports indicate he did not sell. Ross said he had mistakenly thought he had sold the assets and did so once he realized the error.

“While I am disappointed that my report was not certified, I remain committed to complying with my ethics agreement and adhering to the guidance of commerce ethics officials,” said Ross in a statement after the report.

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