Wilbur Ross, a Billionaire Investor, Is Confirmed as Commerce Secretary


WASHINGTON — The Senate confirmed Wilbur L. Ross, the billionaire investor, as commerce secretary on Monday, installing a key leader for the Trump administration’s plans to overhaul trade deals such as the North American Free Trade Agreement.

By a vote of 72 to 27, the Senate confirmed Mr. Ross, who has already been advising President Trump on economic policy and helping him to craft ways to rewrite the tax code. A renegotiation of Nafta is expected to be Mr. Ross’s top priority when he takes over the job. During his confirmation hearing in January, he warned that “all aspects” of the agreement between the United States and its northern and southern neighbors are on the table.

With the confirmation of Mr. Ross, the most important members of Mr. Trump’s economic team are in place just in time for looming fights over the budget, health care and tax legislation.

Compared with some of Mr. Trump’s other cabinet picks, Mr. Ross had his confirmation process move ahead with relative ease. He faced less resistance from Democrats than Steven Mnuchin, the Treasury secretary, and Andrew F. Puzder, whose nomination to lead the Labor Department was derailed.

A former Democrat, Mr. Ross, 79, divested a significant portion of his holdings to avoid conflicts of interest before taking the helm of the Commerce Department. He also tried to temper some of Mr. Trump’s views on trade, attempting to ease concerns that the United States is going to be engaging in trade wars.

“I am pro-trade, but I am pro-sensible trade,” Mr. Ross declared at his confirmation hearing.

But he takes the job with lingering questions about how his business experience will mesh with Mr. Trump’s “America First” trade agenda.

As a private equity investor, Mr. Ross amassed a fortune by taking advantage of trade deals with countries such as China and Mexico. He sent jobs to Mexico when he was the head of a car parts company, benefiting from some of the Nafta provisions that he will most likely be looking to unwind. And he is maintaining a minority stake in a company backed by the Chinese government.

Mr. Ross has said that he wants to use his knowledge of the global economy to help improve the fortunes of lower- and middle-class Americans. He said last summer that he was attracted to Mr. Trump as a candidate because he believed that the country needed a “more radical, new approach to government.”

The appointment of Mr. Ross fulfills Mr. Trump’s promise to stock his cabinet with proven dealmakers. But it also opens the president up to criticism that he has veered away from his vows of populism by surrounding himself with plutocrats.

Democrats have assailed Mr. Trump for assembling the wealthiest cabinet in American history, and on Monday they did not let up.

“Wilbur Ross is practically a cartoon stereotype of a Wall Street fat cat with no interest in anyone but himself,” Senator Elizabeth Warren, Democrat of Massachusetts, wrote on Twitter.

On the Senate floor ahead of the vote, Senator Chuck Schumer, Democrat of New York and the minority leader, accused Mr. Ross of having questionable business ties to Russia. He said Mr. Ross and the Trump administration had failed to be forthcoming about the matter and described it as a troubling pattern.

“This is just another example of this administration abandoning transparency and trying to jam nominees through,” Mr. Schumer said. “This is another black mark on this nation’s administration.”

Mr. Ross is set to be sworn in on Tuesday at the White House.

The Senate was also holding a cloture vote on Representative Ryan Zinke of Montana, Mr. Trump’s nominee for interior secretary. A full vote is expected for Mr. Zinke later this week.



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