Editorial Board

Commerce Secretary Offshores His Ethics

When it comes to ethics, appearances matter -- as Wilbur Ross is learning the hard way.

Do better.

Photographer: John Taggart/Bloomberg

"Appearance," Plato observed, "tyrannizes over truth." President Donald Trump's administration should keep that in mind when attending to its latest conflict-of-interest scandal.

Wilbur Ross Says 'No Conflict of Interest' on Navigator

According to news reports based on leaks from a Bermuda law firm, Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross did not disclose business ties with people close to Russian President Vladimir Putin. Ross holds an investment in Navigator Holdings Ltd., which does business with a company owned by Putin's son-in-law and another Russian who is subject to U.S. sanctions. 

Give the secretary the benefit of the doubt for a moment. He hasn't been accused of a crime. He has complicated finances. And he could be forgiven for not knowing every detail of every deal done by companies he invests in. But this is all the more reason he should've divested himself from such holdings when he was first confirmed: to remove the appearance of a conflict.

Instead, Ross chose to maintain stakes in several entities that invest in shipping and real estate, most registered in the Cayman Islands, while declining to explain why. Now he has "recused himself from transoceanic shipping matters" -- which really is not a great subject for a commerce secretary to recuse himself from.

Nor is this Ross's only apparent conflict. He has negotiated a trade deal with China while retaining investments in shipping and natural-gas exploration companies that could directly benefit from it. He owns stakes in an oil-tanker company even though his department regulates oil spills. His global shipping and real-estate holdings -- worth up to $41.5 million -- create innumerable avenues for impropriety, by Ross or by those seeking to influence him. From the start, he has taken every available opportunity to delay disclosures or divestments.

Such behavior would ordinarily constitute a scandal. In this administration, where "not technically illegal" is the reigning ethical standard, it's more or less routine. Members of Trump's administration have shown extreme indifference to conflicts of interest. They have flouted ethics requirements. They work on areas of public policy that might benefit them financially. They seem to get remarkably forgetful when filling out disclosure forms or testifying under oath.

All this, of course, starts at the top. The man in the Oval Office has comprehensively failed to extricate himself from his family businesses, release his tax returns, or divulge key details about his finances. He hasn't even bothered to come up with plausible excuses. "The president can't have a conflict of interest," he once said, falsely, and left it at that. Meanwhile, foreign dignitaries duly drop by his hotels.

Even if everyone in Trump's White House were flawlessly virtuous, the mere appearance of so many conflicts erodes public trust. (The indictments and grand-jury proceedings don't help.) Entering public service means adhering to norms and principles intended to demonstrate propriety, above and beyond what the letter of the law states. Wilbur Ross probably didn't commit a crime -- but surely the commerce secretary can aim for a higher standard than that.

    --Editors: Timothy Lavin, Michael Newman.

    To contact the senior editor responsible for Bloomberg View’s editorials: David Shipley at davidshipley@bloomberg.net .

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