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The decline and fall of Wilbur Ross

Wilbur Ross behind President Trump
Photo: Alex Wong / Getty Images

President Donald Trump has put Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross out to pasture.

QuoteWilbur has lost his step. Actually, he’s probably lost a lot of steps.
— President Trump, shaking his head in resignation, to one of our sources

One problem: Ross’s efforts to wheel and deal with the Chinese have left the president unimpressed. Another problem: He keeps falling asleep in meetings.

Early in Trump’s presidency, Ross was his go-to negotiator, helming the administration’s trade talks with the Chinese. After a few months, though, Trump concluded he was doing a terrible job.

In a series of Oval Office meetings about six months into his presidency, Trump eviscerated Ross, telling him he’d screwed up, and badly.

“These trade deals, they’re terrible,” Trump said, according to a source in the room for one of the meetings. “Your understanding of trade is terrible. Your deals are no good. No good.”

Trump told Ross he didn’t trust him to negotiate anymore. Ross had tried in the early months of the administration, before Robert Lighthizer was confirmed as the U.S. Trade Representative, to take the lead on several crucial trade conversations. Once Lighthizer arrived there was a tussle for control over several issues. But after Ross botched — in Trump's eyes — his dealings with China, he decided Lighthizer would be the lead negotiator on all trade issues.

During this period, Trump humiliated Ross in front of his colleagues, per three sources, and questioned his intelligence and competence.

The Financial Times reported in August that Trump rejected a China steel deal that Ross thought he’d closed. But nobody has reported the extent of Trump’s castration of Ross. Trump has effectively taken his Commerce Secretary — who he once called a “killer” — off the playing field.

  • One example: Ross made a deal to open the U.S. market to cooked Chinese chicken, in exchange for the Chinese opening their market to American beef. Ross told reporters it was a “herculean accomplishment,” and “more than has been done in the whole history of U.S.-China relations on trade,” per the AP.
  • But Trump wasn’t impressed with this deal — at all — and told our sources he found Ross’s boasting to be laughable and ridiculous.  

Ross’s propensity to doze off in meetings — which senior Capitol Hill aides have noticed — hasn’t helped.

Quote“Wilbur is good until about 11 a.m."
A former senior administration official

Why this matters: Ross entered the administration as one of Trump’s favorites, poised to be a power player. Trump has known Ross since the bankruptcy tycoon helped keep him financially afloat in the early 1990s. Trump was proud that Ross — this billionaire Wall Street legend — wanted to work for him.

“Wilbur is so famous on Wall Street he only needs one name,” Trump said in an early meeting with White House visitors, according to a source in the room. “You don’t even need to say his last name; you just say Wilbur and they know who you’re talking about.”

The WH pushback: Principal Deputy White House Press Secretary Raj Shah emailed me this statement: "Secretary Ross is leading the administration’s approach on steel, aluminum, intellectual property and trade. Far from souring on his performance, since taking office, the President has expanded his responsibilities.”

  • Chief economic adviser Gary Cohn: “Secretary Ross remains an important member of the President’s economic team, particularly as we work to advance the President’s commitment to free, fair and reciprocal trade.”
  • Trade Rep. Robert Lighthizer: “Secretary Ross and I work together every day on these trade items. We all value his sharp business acumen, his insight into trade policy issues, and his hard work to advance the President’s agenda.”

The current status: Ross bottomed out with Trump midway through last year. Since then, Ross has spent months trying to rebuild alliances within the administration, courting his colleagues over dinners, but he’s never fully regained his stature in Trump’s eyes.

  • However, he is in a much a better place with the boss than he was in July, and remains an active participant in the weekly trade meetings. He'll be a primary player in the debates over possible steel and aluminum tariffs and recently hand-delivered reports to the president on the national security findings on both metals.
  • But sources close to Trump say he’ll never again trust the 80-year-old to be his “killer” negotiator. The recent Forbes article — revealing that Ross vastly exaggerated his net worth — did not help his internal standing.

“Wilbur’s been sucking up for months, trying to get back in the president’s good graces,” said a source close to Trump.

He's got a way to go.

Update: Press Secretary Sarah Sanders defended Ross on Monday saying Trump "has 100% confidence in Secretary Ross. He loves Wilbur, thinks he's doing a great job and has been a strong advocate for the administration and been a great leader when it comes to the trade discussion on steel, aluminum, and certainly his involvement in trade across the board with the administration.”

Editor's note: This article has been edited to correct Ross' age from 81 to 80.

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President Trump is ending the week with a flop — nowhere close to the border wall funding he wanted in the DACA-less spending bill that congressional leaders released last evening. But he's fulfilling one of his most aggressive campaign promises with his anti-China trade action.

The big picture: Trump's expected announcement today of tariffs on Chinese imports is a big deal, and analysts fear it could provoke a trade war — and it comes as Trump has been battling his own party here at home over the government spending bill.

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