Analysis & Comment

Opinion | Wilbur Ross, Back to Back

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When my colleague Gail Collins first conducted a reader contest to choose the worst member of President Trump’s cabinet, in 2017, Education Secretary Betsy DeVos was the winner. (I’ll confess that I disagreed with the choice; I would have gone with the man then running the Department of Health and Human Services, Tom Price, a.k.a “Dr. Personal Enrichment.”)

In 2018, the head of the Environmental Protection Agency, Scott Pruitt, took the prize. And this year, in the third iteration of Gail’s contest, her readers chose Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross. He won on the strength of his extensive record of lying in public and, like Price, apparently using government service to enrich himself.

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“The Ross victory is a little suspect,” Gail wrote, “since it came right after he gave an interview in which he expressed befuddlement about why furloughed government workers were going to food banks and homeless shelters when they could — you know, just go see their banker and take out a loan.”

“Do you think he was making a play for first place?” she asked.

Well, now he seems to be making a play for a repeat victory.

Yesterday, The Times reported that Ross threatened to fire top officials at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the agency responsible for weather forecasts, because the agency’s Birmingham office contradicted Trump’s erroneous claim that Alabama was at risk of being hit by Hurricane Dorian.

As you may recall, the Birmingham office made the original statement because it was worried that people were at risk of harm. Needlessly fleeing one’s home — and in the case of Alabamians last week, potentially heading into the path of a storm — isn’t a great idea. Evidently, though, Ross thought the officials put too much emphasis on human life and not enough on Trump’s image.

I should add that Ross already had a fairly strong case to be a repeat winner for Worst Cabinet Member, given his handling of the Census Bureau’s attempt to add a citizenship question. (The short version: He lied to Congress about the white nationalist motives for doing so.) Then again, next year is still almost four months away, so there is plenty of time for somebody else to give him some competition.


“This isn’t a distraction. It’s one of the best stories for understanding how this administration operates,” the political scientist Seth Masket wrote. CNN’s Sam Vinograd observed that “the job of a cabinet secretary — in a democracy — isn’t to be a government censor, especially when lives are at risk.” Susan Glasser of The New Yorker said, “It’s like an old Soviet joke, except in 2019 America.”

Jonathan Chait of New York magazine: “The norm of bureaucratic professionalism and fairness is a pillar of the political legitimacy and economic strength of the American system, the thing that separates countries like the U.S. from countries like Russia. The decay of that culture is difficult to quantify, but the signs are everywhere. Trump’s stench is slowly seeping into every corner of government.”

Michael Cohen, of The Boston Globe: “Congressional Democrats should be calling on Wilbur Ross to resign immediately. If he refuses they should impeach him. What he’s accused of is unbelievably dangerous and a flagrant misuse of power.”

And in The Times: “It shows that even the leadership of NOAA, which should be the most technical and apolitical of agencies, is now so subservient to Trump that it’s willing not just to overrule its own experts but to lie, simply to avoid a bit of presidential embarrassment,” Paul Krugman writes. “Which brings me to a much more important case, the Justice Department’s decision to investigate automakers for the crime of trying to act responsibly.”

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David Leonhardt is a former Washington bureau chief for the Times, and was the founding editor of The Upshot and head of The 2020 Project, on the future of the Times newsroom. He won the 2011 Pulitzer Prize for commentary, for columns on the financial crisis. @DLeonhardt Facebook

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