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A Closer Look At Trump's Pick To Head The Commerce Department


This morning, billionaire Wilbur Ross takes to the stand in front of the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee. Ross is Donald Trump's nominee for Commerce secretary. He's one of the wealthiest of the billionaires Trump has named to his cabinet. And Democrats have criticized him as one of the Wall Street elites Trump is packing into his administration. Chris Arnold is here in the studio with us. He covers economic issues for NPR. Hi, Chris.


MARTIN: So this is what we have seen from the Trump administration before, tapping people who are quite wealthy. That raises a lot of questions about conflicts of interest, at least potentially. Is this something Wilbur Ross has addressed?

ARNOLD: Well, just this week, Wilbur Ross is now saying that he's divesting himself of some assets and resigning from corporate boards. So that process is beginning to happen. We'll see how much further it goes.

MARTIN: Is that likely to satisfy those on the left? And there have been those who have criticized him and his wealth and question whether or not it makes him a competent choice.

ARNOLD: We'll see. There are some on the left who are very upset about this sort of cabal of wealthy people that they see as taking over the country. And many of them describe Ross as what they call a quote, unquote, "vulture investor," the image being that he swoops down on troubled companies and feasts upon their remains. The reason that they use that image is because he buys up bankrupt companies or struggling companies. But Wilbur Ross might be the best pick that Democrats could hope for.

MARTIN: All right, what does that mean?

ARNOLD: That means that if you talk to people who work in the steel industry, they know a very different Wilbur Ross from the one that's being described right now by some liberal groups. And back in the early 2000s, there were a bunch of dying and bankrupt steel companies in this country. And Wilbur Ross bought them up.

And at this point, the doors were locked. The jobs were lost. The factories were shut down. The steel mills were shut down. And Wilbur Ross came in, and he did not devour the companies. He saved the companies. And people who were involved in that say, look, he was more like an ER triage surgeon than he was a predatory bird. We talked to Leo Gerard. He's the head of the international steelworkers union, and he's saying that Ross got the mills running again and did a lot of good.

LEO GERARD: Well, look at - the relationship we had with him was one where he was open and accessible and candid and honest. And he put a lot of money back into the mills and so that literally tens of thousands of jobs were saved.

ARNOLD: Also, Gerard says that Ross reinstated health benefits for the retirees. He didn't have to do that. They weren't quite as generous as they were before. Also, Ross is a former Democrat. He has not always been a Republican. He served as an officer in the New York State Democratic Party. He's raised money for Democrats. He's also raised a lot of money for Republicans. But if you're a Democrat, Ross doesn't exactly sound like a radical right velociraptor here.

MARTIN: (Laughter) OK. Dinosaurs aside, are there things that are more specific that his critics take issue with where it might hit home a little more?

ARNOLD: Sure, just this week, there's been criticism. So there were some numbers put together that showed that, look, in the auto parts business, Ross, when he controlled companies, shipped several thousand jobs overseas. These were jobs that he did not save in America. This happened at a time when there was a lot of outsourcing going on in this country. And if we believe the steelworkers union, there were more American jobs saved there than there were lost in this other example. So look, it's a complicated picture.

MARTIN: Let's talk about trade because this was a huge issue in the presidential campaign. What are we likely to see there?

ARNOLD: Ross and President-elect Donald Trump have both said that the U.S. needs to renegotiate trade deals to protect American jobs. And that's no surprise to anybody. Ross told CNN right after he was picked for Commerce secretary, though, that one of the first things he's going to tackle is renegotiating NAFTA. Now, later today, there is undoubtably going to be something that he gets questions about from members of the Senate. How are you going to dismantle a longstanding trade deal without sparking a damaging trade war for this country?

MARTIN: It's also worth noting, Wilbur Ross is - he is up there in years, shall we say? He's 79 years old. That seems exceptional for someone to be a Cabinet pick.

ARNOLD: I guess. But look, there's a lot of people of that age who are very active. And a story...

MARTIN: I'm not suggesting otherwise, by the way.

ARNOLD: My father hits the gym every day. He's 82. But, you know, one story that a former worker told me was he went to pick up Wilbur Ross from the airport. And he's got an easel and the charts, and he's carrying his own suitcase. And, you know, he appears to be a pretty fit guy.

MARTIN: All right, we'll watch the confirmation hearing. NPR's correspondent Chris Arnold covers economics. Thanks, Chris.

ARNOLD: Thanks, Rachel. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR correspondent Chris Arnold is based in Boston. His reports are heard regularly on NPR's award-winning newsmagazines Morning Edition, All Things Considered, and Weekend Edition. He joined NPR in 1996 and was based in San Francisco before moving to Boston in 2001.
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