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WASHINGTON — The Senate confirmed Wilbur Ross as commerce secretary Monday night after two Democratic senators criticized the White House for refusing to release Ross' written response to questions about his banking ties to Russia's oligarchs.
Ross is a billionaire who has turned around high-profile companies in the steel, coal, textile and auto-parts sectors. Most of his life, he's been a Democrat, and his nomination had bipartisan support. He encountered opposition from some Democrats after revelations that his majority ownership of Bank of Cyprus made him a business associate of 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, D-Fla., the top Democrat on the Senate Commerce Committee. Nelson voted for Ross 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 a floor speech before 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., because he was a constituent and an admired businessman. But, he noted, the White House lost votes for Ross by not addressing the questions.
Senate Minority Leader Charles E. 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 refusal to release the questions “so typical of this administration that stonewalls.”
Sen. Jeff Merkley, D-Ore., said Ross should be disqualified. “Americans have the right to know about all the conflicts of interest that could affect the judgment of a Cabinet official,” he said.
An investment group led by Ross took a majority stake in the Russia-tied bank in September 2014, with Ross becoming its vice chairman. Reporting by McClatchy and other news organizations showed that the largest stakeholder in Bank of Cyprus — after Ross' group — was Viktor Vekselberg, one of Russia's wealthiest businessmen and a longtime ally of President Vladimir Putin. The previous vice chairman of the bank was Vladimir Strzhalkovsky, reportedly a former KGB agent believed to be a longtime Putin associate.
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 bank. In 2008, during the U.S. financial crisis and with real estate prices falling , Ryvolovev purchased Donald Trump's mansion in Palm Beach for almost $100 million, about $60 million more than Trump had paid for the property.
Six Democratic senators, led by Nelson, sent a letter to Ross 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 secretary nominee had offered oral explanations. Nelson said Ross assured him that 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 announced his presidential candidacy.
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 ties to Russia. His secretary of state, former Exxon Mobil CEO Rex Tillerson, did business with Putin. Trump's national security adviser, Michael Flynn, was fired earlier this month for not fully informing Vice President Mike Pence about conversations about sanctions he had had with the Russian ambassador before Inauguration Day.
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.
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