Trump to tap billionaire investor Wilbur Ross for commerce secretary

Trump's White House

President-elect Donald Trump is shaping his White House staff. Here's a look at the individuals he's offered positions to.
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President-elect Donald Trump is shaping his White House staff. Here's a look at the individuals he's offered positions to.

President-elect Donald Trump will nominate Wilbur Ross, a billionaire investor who made his fortune by buying and restructuring bankrupt companies, to be his secretary of commerce.

Ross confirmed the news on an interview on CNBC's “Squawk Box.” An official announcement is expected Wednesday.

The Cabinet-level job is normally a cheerleader position for U.S. business but one that could serve a bulldozer function if Trump seeks to get tough with China. The commerce secretary oversees a variety of agencies, including the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office, the International Trade Administration, the Census Bureau and and the Bureau of Economic Analysis.

Ross, 80, a New Jersey native, helped shape Trump’s economic agenda during the presidential campaign, especially his aggressive stance on renegotiating or withdrawing from free trade agreements. He has called for the United States to pull out of the Trans-Pacific Partnership and to renegotiate the North American Free Trade Agreement. He also wants to impose tariffs on U.S. companies that move abroad and try to sell goods back into the country, work to improve the sluggish steel industry and impose tough penalties on China.

In an interview with CNBC in June, Ross called for “a more radical, new approach to the government” to help middle-class and lower middle-class Americans who he said had not benefited economically over the last decade.

Nicknamed the “king of bankruptcy” by Fortune magazine, Ross is the chairman of WL Ross & Co, which specializes in purchasing distressed companies. He is worth $2.9 billion, according to Forbes magazine.

Known as a sharp negotiator, Ross became wealthy by spotting opportunity in purchasing bankrupt companies in declining industries such as steel, including LTV Corp. in Ohio and Bethlehem Steel in Pennsylvania. He is known for doing the same with failing mining company Horizon Natural Resources, restructuring it and selling it to Arch Coal in 2011 for $3.4 billion. In the aftermath of the 2008 financial crisis, he invested $1.8 billion in faltering banks, from Florida’s BankUnited to several European banks.

Ross is one of several wealthy conservatives being tapped by Trump to lead his administration’s top agencies. Last week, Trump announced that he would nominate billionaire philanthropist Betsy DeVos, an heir to the Amway Corp. fortune, to head his Education Department. He is also considering Chicago Cubs co-owner Todd Ricketts to be deputy secretary of the Commerce Department.

On Wednesday, Trump also will nominate Steven Mnuchin, a film producer, banker and investor with no government experience, to head the Treasury Department, one of the senior-most positions in his administration.

If Ross is confirmed by the Senate, one billionaire would replace another in the post. The current commerce secretary, Penny Pritzker, is a Chicago businesswoman who served as a key fundraiser for President Barack Obama before becoming the head of the department in 2013.

In an interview with CNBC Tuesday, she said Trump's commerce secretary will have to focus on trade, maintaining a skilled workforce and the digital economy.

“Whether it's globalization, automation or digitization, we need to make sure that our people are well-trained and well prepared to deal with that," she said.

Ross would oversee a $9.8 billion budget and the department's nearly 47,000 employees, who are spread across all 50 states as well as 12 bureaus in 86 countries.

Vera Bergengruen contributed.

Anita Kumar: 202-383-6017, @anitakumar01

Kevin G. Hall: 202-383-6038, @KevinGHall