A president with little regard for ethical norms and a pattern of self-dealing signs into law a relief package that will give out upward of trillions of dollars. A White House that from day one has been dogged by questions about personal interests mingling with public service takes control of a governmentwide pandemic response. Senior members of the administration who have flouted federal ethics rules regarding their own personal finances and business interests turn to the private sector for help as they grapple with one of the worst public-health crises in a century.
What could go wrong?
As the Federal Reserve expands its emergency lending powers, and as President Trump’s $2 trillion coronavirus relief law goes into full effect, there’s a fight brewing over how to keep track of the money to ensure it reaches the people who need it most — and doesn’t end up enriching Trump’s friends and business partners.
On Thursday, Sens. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.), Tom Carper (D-Del.), and Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.) sent a list of questions to Scott Gast, a senior counsel to the president and the White House’s designated ethics official, about possible ethical and criminal conflict-of-interest issues with the administration’s coronavirus response efforts. “Amidst the coronavirus pandemic,” they write, “the American public should not have to worry that critical public health and economic decisions are being made in secret by public officials influenced by financial connections and personal ties.”
The letter highlighted potential conflicts with the coronavirus working group led by Jared Kushner, the president’s son-in-law and senior adviser. The letter cited reporting in Politico that said private companies assisting Kushner on a voluntary basis were “seeking to entrench themselves in hopes of winning lucrative government contracts down the line.” The senators also noted reporting in the Atlantic that indicated Oscar Health, a tech-centric health insurance company Kushner had previously owned or controlled, had worked with administration officials to develop a coronavirus-testing website. And the letter pointed out that Apollo Global Management, a private-equity firm that lent $200 million to Kushner Cos. in 2017, has urged the Federal Reserve to expand its emergency lending guidelines.
The letter from Warren, Carper, and Blumenthal points out that at least one major donor and another Trump golf club member, who has personally golfed with Trump, also stand to benefit financially from the Food and Drug Administration’s emergency-use authorization of hydroxychloroquine as a COVID-19 treatment method.
The senators’ letter ends with a list of nine questions that asks for a complete list of the companies, consultants, advisers, and other nongovernment employees working on the administration’s coronavirus response; if any of Trump’s or Kushner’s nongovernment advisers have recused themselves from decisions that they could have a financial stake in; and if Kushner would be required to disclose details about meetings and decisions by his public-private coronavirus working group.
Judging by recent actions, Trump has little interest in ensuring there’s rigorous oversight of his coronavirus relief funds. Last week, he ousted Glenn Fine, the acting inspector general of the Pentagon who had been chosen to lead the new Pandemic Response Accountability Committee. He also installed a White House lawyer to be the new inspector general for the Treasury Department, which plays a central role in directing coronavirus relief funds.
And so far, there is only one person appointed to a new Congressional Oversight Commission created to act as a watchdog for the $2 trillion that will be spent under the CARES Act, the largest of the coronavirus relief laws.
On Wednesday, The New York Times reported that Bharat Ramamurti, thus far the lone member of the Congressional Oversight Commission, wrote a letter to Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin and Federal Reserve Chairman Jerome Powell demanding information about which companies were receiving financial help from Treasury and the Fed. “The public deserves to know which companies are receiving taxpayer-backed lending through the Fed and on what terms, and to be able to monitor what those companies do after receiving taxpayer support,” Ramamurti wrote.
The Times reported that Ramamurti, who is a former aide to Sen. Warren, “asked the Fed to provide details about the identity of borrowers, the terms of the loans, and the intended use of the proceeds. He is also seeking full deal documents, information about the equity supporting the deals, and proof that the money is not going to foreign businesses or companies controlled by White House officials or members of Congress and their families.”
A provision added to the multitrillion-dollar CARES Act was intended to prevent members of the Trump family from receiving relief under the law. But it appears that Trump hotels could still qualify for emergency funds under the law.