Wilbur Ross, the commerce secretary, is a liar. And according to lawsuits brought by former business partners, a thief. Now he’s attempting his biggest swindle yet: rigging the 2020 census to favor the Republican Party.
A vulture capitalist with no experience in government, whose private-equity firm was fined by the Securities and Exchange Commission for bilking investors out of millions, Ross was a tidy fit for Donald Trump’s Cabinet, which the president stocked with tycoons despite campaigning as a champion of the forgotten man. “I just don’t want a poor person,” Trump said of his top economic posts. He saw Ross — supposedly the richest of the lot — as a fellow traveler, a self-made billionaire with few scruples. Touting Ross at a rally in Cincinnati, Trump boasted, “I put on a killer.”
As administrator of the 2020 census, the “killer” is overseeing a crucial tool for our democracy. The once-every-10-years population count determines how seats are allocated in the House of Representatives — and in turn, the Electoral College — and it will guide the distribution of trillions in federal spending over the next decade.
Ross has brought his trademark integrity to the task. The Constitution requires a count of “the whole number of persons in each state” — citizens and noncitizens alike. But Ross conspired with then-Trump-deputies Steve Bannon, Kris Kobach and Attorney General Jeff Sessions — heroes to white nationalists, all — to order the Census Bureau to include a citizenship question for the first time in 70 years. Then Ross lied publicly about his rationale for including the question — even under oath — to Congress.
This “unconstitutional and arbitrary” decision, according to a federal lawsuit brought in New York by the attorneys general of 17 states and the District of Columbia, was designed to intimidate millions of people of color. Undocumented immigrants and their citizen family members, the suit argues, will balk at disclosing citizenship status, fearing reprisal from the most anti-immigrant administration in generations. (Ross did not agree to be interviewed by Rolling Stone.)
Corrupting the census is the boldest strike yet against representative democracy by a Republican Party threatened by demographic change. “We are seeing aggressive efforts to change the rules to entrench one political party in power regardless of the support they receive from voters,” says Wendy Weiser, director of the Democracy Program at the Brennan Center for Justice. Other tactics — extreme gerrymandering, voter ID laws, felon disenfranchisement and voter purges — helped Republicans take the governor’s race in Georgia in the 2018 election and to retain legislative majorities in at least four states where Republicans lost the popular vote. In Wisconsin and Michigan, these legislatures immediately moved to kneecap the authority of incoming Democratic administrations.
By rigging the decennial count, Ross and the Trump administration are attempting to deny targeted minorities a right to representation. A citizenship question will produce a census undercount of as many as 6.5 million people, predominantly from “Hispanic, immigrant and foreign-born populations,” according to testimony by five former Census Bureau directors. This flawed tally would leave “urban communities . . . disproportionately disadvantaged” for a decade.
Their loss — measured in fewer House seats and lost dollars from more than 300 federal programs — would be the gain of older, whiter, more rural Americans. In other words, Trump’s base. “The citizenship question is a tactic to chill participation,” says Sen. Brian Schatz, a Democrat from Hawaii and one of Ross’ leading critics in Congress. “They want to use the census to count fewer Democrats.”
BALD, WIZENED, with the charisma of a box turtle, Ross is an understated henchman. Where other Trump Cabinet officials, like Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke, fly vanity flags above department headquarters, Ross commissioned a pair of $600 Stubbs Wootton evening slippers, embroidered with the Commerce Department logo, which he wore to Trump’s first address to Congress. Reportedly, the 81-year-old falls asleep in Cabinet meetings.
Ross’ avuncular bearing won over the Senate, which confirmed him on a 72-to-27 vote. A registered Democrat until 2016, Ross did not enter government with a reputation as an ideologue. But there were warning signs: He previously advised New York mayor (now Trump toady) Rudy Giuliani and was once married to New York’s Republican Lt. Gov. Betsy McCaughey, infamous for sparking the Obamacare “death panels” panic.
The commerce secretary is tasked with fostering economic growth, international trade and American jobs — overseeing everything from the patent office to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, which regulates commercial fisheries and measures climate change. For Ross, job one is pushing Trump’s “America First” trade agenda. To fulfill populist promises of punishing trading partners that Trump believes take advantage of the United States, Ross imposed import taxes, or tariffs, on billions of dollars of Chinese goods, paid for by American consumers. The Chinese retaliated with duties on American agriculture exports, creating a trade war that angered even fellow Republicans. “You are putting American jobs at risk,” then-Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah) warned Ross during a 2018 hearing. “And you are destroying markets.”
In Ross’ Commerce Department — as in so much of the Trump administration — the line between public interest and personal profit is fuzzy. The secretary’s tenure has been roiled by conflicts of interest, including working on steel tariffs while holding steel assets. Ross has been forced to issue a number of belated financial disclosures and mea culpas. Delaney Marsco, an ethics lawyer at the nonpartisan Campaign Legal Center, documented Ross’ “possible violations of law” in a complaint to Commerce’s inspector general. Ross’ “shocking and upsetting” MO, Marsco says, is “I’m so rich that I’m above the law.”
Ross built his fortune betting on distressed businesses — eventually founding his own private equity firm, WL Ross. Rejecting the label “vulture capitalist,” Ross touted himself as a “phoenix” who rebuilds from the ashes. He gained Trump’s confidence in 1990, when he represented bondholders in Trump’s faltering Taj Mahal casino. Ross struck a deal that rescued the future president from personal bankruptcy and let Trump retain a 50 percent stake in the Atlantic City casino (which itself later went bankrupt, twice); Trump saluted Ross as a “fantastic negotiator.”
Since joining the government, Ross has been exposed as something else: a fraud. When he filed public financial disclosures in 2017, $2 billion of Ross’ supposed wealth vanished. Ross insisted the funds had been transferred to family trusts. But when Forbes, which had listed Ross as a billionaire since 2004, investigated, it concluded the missing billions “never existed,” and that Ross had “lied to us” in a “sequence of fibs, exaggerations, omissions, fabrications and whoppers.” Bloomberg slashed its estimate of Ross’ wealth from $3 billion to $860 million, booting him from its Billionaires Index.
This wasn’t the first time Ross had been connected to fraudulent activity. In 2016, the Securities and Exchange Commission ruled WL Ross had violated the Advisers Act, banning “fraud or deceit,” by double-charging investors for transaction fees for a decade. WL Ross returned $11.9 million of illicit gains and interest, also paying a $2.3 million penalty to the government. (In a statement to Rolling Stone, Ross said, “The Securities and Exchange Commission has never initiated any enforcement action against me” — meaning Ross, personally, instead of the firm he led that bears his name.)
Ross is known as the King of Bankruptcy. But lawsuits by former business partners paint him as the King of Grift. Financier David Storper sued three times, accusing Ross of stealing his returns on private-equity deals. “Mr. Ross surreptitiously directed the confiscation of millions,” one complaint reads, with “proceeds going into Mr. Ross’ own pockets.” Ross settled two suits with Storper in August 2018; a third case (filed with two additional plaintiffs and now under appeal) alleges WL Ross cheated them of $48 million. Joseph Mullin, another ex-partner, claimed Ross “looted” millions from him by producing “misleading tax statements” and even a “sham” statement of liquidation for a fund that, in fact, remained profitable for years afterward. A third ex-partner, Peter Lusk, sued Ross for failing to pay out profits “substantially in excess of $20 million,” settling in 2007. In Ross’ statement to Rolling Stone, he said that the settled cases “ended with mutual confidentiality requirements” and insisted, “The remaining allegations are baseless.”
Ross has also been dogged by accusations of insider trading. In 2011, he directed an investment that rescued the Bank of Ireland from default. The bold bet yielded a rich payoff, netting his firm more than $650 million when Ross sold its stake in 2014. But dodgy accounting practices had inflated the bank’s returns, and a European parliamentary report found Ross “had access to the loss details that Bank of Ireland kept hidden from retail shareholders.” In other words: “The profit that Mr. Ross accumulated was largely at their expense.”
Similar charges have followed Ross into office. When The New York Times was preparing to run a story about a Kremlin-linked shipping company that Ross owned shares in — even after promising to divest from the firm — Ross shorted the stock, meaning he stood to profit if the stock lost value after the Times published its exposé. Sens. Elizabeth Warren and Richard Blumenthal and Rep. Elijah Cummings called on the SEC to investigate whether Ross had violated insider-trading laws by acting on “non-public information . . . potentially derived from his position as commerce secretary.” In 2018, the Government Ethics Office rebuked Ross, writing, “Your failure to divest created the potential for a serious criminal violation.”
“I’m very concerned that Secretary Ross may be acting out of personal interests,” Cummings tells Rolling Stone, “while continuing to make decisions that negatively impact the American people.”
AT HIS CONFIRMATION hearings, Ross presented himself as a champion of the census. He highlighted his one-time job as a census enumerator and pledged to “ensure a full, fair and accurate count in Census 2020.” But from his first months in office, Ross worked to rig the survey in favor of the GOP by solving the “problem” of counting too many immigrants.
Trump had surrounded himself with anti-immigration zealots like Jeff Sessions and zeroed in on the political potential of the 2020 census count even before Ross’ confirmation. The administration floated a draft executive order in January 2017 that included adding a census citizenship question as part of a crackdown on undocumented immigrants. Bannon, the White House chief strategist, had joined Trump World from Breitbart, the website he’d positioned as “the platform for the alt-right.” And Kris Kobach, then-Kansas secretary of state — infamous for co-authoring an unconstitutional “show me your papers” law in Arizona — was advising Trump on limiting illegal immigration.
Internal e-mails show that Bannon reached out to Ross about the census in spring 2017. By May, Ross was grousing at a deputy: “I am mystified why nothing has been done in response to my months-old request that we include the citizenship question.” In July, Kobach wrote an e-mail to Ross “following up on our telephone discussion from a few months ago.” Kobach wrote that the lack of the “essential” citizenship question “leads to the problem that aliens who do not actually ‘reside’ in the United States are still counted for congressional apportionment purposes.”
Ross knew that adding a citizenship question to the census would likely end up before the Supreme Court — and the court had previously rejected Kobach’s legal analysis. So Ross worked to wag the dog at the Department of Justice. He appealed directly to Sessions (who was once denied confirmation for a judicial post because of his alleged racism) to request the citizenship question. As described in an e-mail by a deputy, Sessions was “eager to assist.”
Begun in bigotry, the drive to add a citizenship question now passed through the looking glass: DOJ issued the request Ross was looking for in December, but framed the issue as “critical” to enforcing the Voting Rights Act — the landmark 1964 legislation that protects against racial discrimination. Justice lawyers argued the department needed a “reliable calculation of the citizen voting-age population in localities where voting-rights violations are alleged or suspected.”
With DOJ’s request in hand, Ross steamrolled internal dissent, including from the Census Bureau’s chief scientist — who warned Ross that a citizenship question “harms the quality of the census count” and would produce “substantially less accurate” citizenship data than the government already collects.
After the RNC sent out a fundraising e-mail in March announcing, “The president wants the 2020 United States Census to ask people whether or not they are citizens,” Ross was called to testify in Congress. Rep. José Serrano (D-N.Y.) demanded to know where the idea for the citizenship question had originated. Ross lied: “We are responding solely to the Department of Justice’s request.” Rep. Grace Meng (D-N.Y.) asked Ross, “Has anyone in the White House discussed with you or anyone on your team about adding the citizenship question?” Ross lied again: “I am not aware of any such.”
Ross ordered the question added to the census in late March. But his well-crafted cover story began to unravel immediately, in a whirlwind of FOIA requests, legal discovery and congressional scrutiny. State attorneys general sued in federal district court, accusing the commerce secretary of attempting to “deprive historically marginalized immigrant communities.”
In a June memo submitted to the court, Ross backpedaled and admitted that, in fact, he was the one who prodded the Justice Department to request the citizenship question. In September, District Court Judge Jesse Furman ordered Ross to be deposed, because his “intent and credibility are directly at issue.” The administration backpedaled again, admitting in a court brief that Ross now recalled speaking about adding the citizenship question with Bannon, Kobach and Sessions. Rep. Meng unloaded — “I’m absolutely incensed that Secretary Ross lied to me when I asked him if he had spoken with anyone in the White House” — and called on the Justice Department to investigate Ross “for possible crimes.” (Ross denies lying — offering Rolling Stone a tortured explanation that he’d been ignoring Meng’s direct question and instead answered an earlier question, out of sequence.)
In October, the administration won a Supreme Court stay blocking Ross’ testimony. But the court refused to postpone the trial itself, rejecting an argument by Solicitor General Noel Francisco that the case could “irreparably harm” the government by revealing “whether the secretary harbored secret racial animus in reinstating a citizenship question.”
THE FIGHT OVER the census has drawn keen interest from Congress, including from incoming House Oversight Committee Chair Cummings: “Secretary Ross orchestrated a secretive, behind-the-scenes campaign to add the citizenship question, and it had nothing to do with the Justice Department wanting to enforce the Voting Rights Act,” Cummings tells Rolling Stone. “Our committee will investigate and hold Secretary Ross accountable for his actions and his previous testimony to Congress.”
Challenging Ross and the Trump administration in court, Sen. Schatz organized an amicus brief, signed by 10 senators and more than 100 representatives, accusing the commerce secretary of running “an end run around the Constitution’s mandate to count all persons.” Schatz has no doubt about the administration’s real motivation. “They’re trying to get a lower count in communities with black and brown people,” he says, “so that Republicans have more representatives in the U.S. House.”
The emergence of the population count as the newest partisan battleground alarms Weiser of the Brennan Center. “I’m concerned about the degradation of the census,” she says, “that something so basic and previously neutral would be undermined for what appear to be improper political purposes.”
Will Ross and the White House get away with it? The legal question turns on the sweep of Ross’ authority. At trial, Trump administration lawyers insisted, baldly, that Ross can’t be second-guessed even if his decision harms people. “All the secretary is required to do is provide a reasoned explanation,” Justice Department lawyer Brett Shumate said. “He doesn’t have to choose the best option.”
Judge Furman was expected to deliver a census ruling in December. But his is not the last word. California — home to more than 10 million immigrants — is suing Ross separately in a trial slated to begin in January. As many as five other suits are also pending, including a Maryland case backed by former Attorney General Eric Holder.
Ross may not last in the Cabinet to see the outcome. Trump’s estimation of his commerce secretary has fallen as precipitously as Ross’ net worth. Ross did not travel with the president to the G20 summit in Argentina, where the new NAFTA accord — a key part of Ross’ portfolio — was signed. And rumors are swirling that Ross could be forced out in a Cabinet shakeup by January. Trump has reportedly blasted Ross in White House meetings for being “past his prime” — telling his once-favorite, now-former billionaire that he is “no longer a killer.”
The census citizenship case is almost certain to land before the Supreme Court — where the strength of the Republican Party’s illiberal campaign against democracy will face a pivotal test, and where the Trump administration likes its chances. Two new conservative justices -appointed by a president who lost the popular vote — will judge the constitutionality of the latest Republican scheme to entrench minority rule in America.