WASHINGTON – The Senate confirmed billionaire businessman Wilbur Ross as commerce secretary Monday night after two Democratic members seared the White House for refusing to release Ross’s written response to questions about his banking ties to Russia’s oligarchs.
Ross, 79, is a billionaire who has turned around high-profile companies in the steel, coal, textiles and auto-parts sectors. Most of his life, he’s been a Democrat, and his nomination drew bipartisan support. He encountered opposition from some Democrats after revelations that his majority ownership of Bank of Cyprus made him a business associate wth Russian oligarchs tied to Putin.
Despite those concerns, the Senate confirmed him on a 72-27 vote.
But that was only after a sharp attack on the White House by Sen. Bill Nelson of Florida, the top Democrat on the Senate Commerce committee, who voted for the billionaire but said in a floor speech that the White House had done Ross no favors by refusing to release his answers to questions about his relationship with Russian investors in Bank of Cyprus.
“They’ve refused to provide them to the Senate prior to tonight’s vote. Now this is despite repeated phone calls to the White House; it’s also despite repeated phone calls from me to Mr. Ross to ask him to get the White House off the dime,” Nelson said in an impassioned floor speech ahead of the vote. “He had told me he filled out the answers. There is somebody in the White House making the decision that they don’t want to have in writing what Mr. Ross has told me in private conversation verbally.”
Nelson said he would vote for Ross, a Palm Beach, Fla., resident, because he’s a constituent and an admired businessman. But, he noted, the White House lost votes for Ross by failing to address the questions.
Senate Minority Leader Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., decried the breach of protocol as “another example of this administration abandoning transparency and trying to jam nominees through.” He called the failure to release the questions “so typical of this administration that stonewalls.”
Democratic Sen. Jeff Merkley of Oregon said the failure to answer questions should disqualify Ross. “… Americans have the right to know about all the conflicts of interest that could affect the judgment of a Cabinet official.”
The White House’s withholding of the responses only added to a widening narrative of ties between Trump administration officials and Russia, a country U.S. intelligence agencies have determined attempted to meddle in the recent U.S. election. The White House refused to respond to questions about Ross.
An investment group led by Ross took a majority stake in the Russia-tied bank in September 2014, becoming its vice chairman. Reporting by McClatchy and other news organizations showed that the largest stakeholder in Bank of Cyprus — after Ross’s group — was Viktor Vekselberg, one of Russia’s wealthiest businessmen and a longtime ally of Putin. The previous vice chairman of the bank was Vladimir Strzhalkovsky, reportedly a former KGB agent believed to be a longtime associate of Putin.
And before Bank of Cyprus was engulfed in that nation’s banking crisis in 2013, another powerful Russian businessman —Dmitry Ryvolovev— had a 10 percent stake in the Cypriot bank. In 2008, amid the U.S. financial crisis and declining real-estate prices, Ryvolovev purchased Donald Trump’s Palm Beach mansion for almost $100 million, about $60 million more than Trump had paid for the Florida property.
Six Democratic senators, led by Florida’s Bill Nelson, sent a letter to Ross on Feb. 16 asking specific questions about Vekselberg and Russian contacts with Bank of Cyprus. Nelson said on the Senate floor Monday night that he had spoken twice to Ross, and that the commerce nominee had offered verbal explanations. Nelson said Ross assured him he knew of no nexus among Russians, the Cyprus bank and figures in the Trump campaign, and suggested that Ross had met Vekselberg once for an hour, well before Trump ever announced an election bid.
Because the nomination was “under the overhanging question of the unlawful Russian involvement in a U.S. election,” Nelson said he sought assurances about Russian investors in Bank of Cyprus.
Several people who worked in Trump’s campaign and have joined his administration have controversial ties to Russia. His secretary of state, former ExxonMobil CEO Rex Tillerson, did business with Putin. Trump’s national security adviser Lt. Gen. Michael Flynn was fired earlier this month for failing to fully inform Vice President Mike Pence about conversations he had with the Russian ambassador before Inauguration Day about sanctions.
Campaign manager Paul Manafort resigned from the campaign last Aug. 19 over his business ties to the former Ukrainian president, who is now living in Russia.