The comparisons between Charles Dickens’ miserly, Christmas-hating curmudgeon, Ebenezer Scrooge, and members of President Donald Trump’s Cabinet flow fast and easy. And yet Wilbur Ross, who’s maintained his position at the top of the commerce department throughout Trump’s presidency, is the clear choice in my mind for the official who most fits the bill.
By all accounts, Ross has been an absolute nightmare of a secretary, one who “keeps ethics watchdogs up at night.” In literally any other administration, he would have been fired a long time ago. And in his unrepentant pursuit of money through the years and the willingness to cast aside his own staffers in his own interest, Ross has all the makings of a man who would make Scrooge blush with distaste. He is a Michael Caine among Muppets, a serious patron of the art of corruption surrounded by chaos, antics, and hijinks.
The citizenship question was dead to begin with. There was no question whatever about that. The Supreme Court had ruled upon it, the Census Bureau had acknowledged its demise. Ross had signed a statement to that effect, and you could take Ross’s name to the bank.
We begin our examination with a look at Ross’s indifference to the suffering of his fellow citizens, which can best be summed up in how on his orders the Census Bureau politicized the decennial count. Ross announced in March 2018 that a citizenship question would be added to the coming census, forcing respondents to reveal their immigration status.
If put into practice, undocumented immigrants would find themselves faced with the choice of either ignoring census workers canvassing their neighborhood or incriminating themselves, opening the door for their own deportation. Protecting themselves and their families would mean a drop-off in money allocated to their communities and potentially reducing their state’s seats in Congress.
Ross claimed that the question was merely being added at the request of the Justice Department to better enforce the Voting Rights Act. As it turns out, Ross had been advocating for a citizenship question long before the Justice Department’s letter, as emails released in July 2018 showed — which is not what government lawyers had told the Supreme Court. Chief Justice John Roberts was not exactly pleased that the administration had lied to his face and in his opinion nuked the question. Roberts made clear that it was because “the evidence tells a story that does not match the explanation the secretary gave for his decision.”
The first bell had rung out and, as promised, the first spirit had stood before Ross. The journey to the past that had promised to show him how little happiness his money had brought him had come and gone, and the Ghost departed once more, leaving Ross alone with his thoughts.
Like Scrooge, Ross is, to quote Dickens, “a squeezing, wrenching, grasping, scraping, clutching, covetous, old sinner!” But unlike Scrooge, who was at least honest in his callousness, we may add that Ross is an inveterate liar, especially when it comes to his riches. Forbes Magazine reported in 2017 that Ross was not actually a billionaire as he had claimed for years. Instead, federal financial disclosure forms showed he was worth a paltry $700 million at most. Forbes reporter Dan Alexander wrote that the evidence showed that “Ross lied to us, the latest in an apparent sequence of fibs, exaggerations, omissions, fabrications and whoppers that have been going on with Forbes since 2004.”
Alexander also later reported that true to avaricious form, former colleagues of Ross “remember the commerce secretary taking handfuls of Sweet'N Low packets from a nearby restaurant, so he didn't have to go out and buy some for himself. One says workers at his house in the Hamptons used to call the office, claiming Ross had not paid them for their work. Another two people said Ross once pledged $1 million to a charity, then never paid.”
It’s not merely past misdeeds on Ross’s ledger, as Scrooge's deceased former partner, Jacob Marley, would put it. Like Trump, whose Atlantic City casino Ross helped him retain ownership of in the 1990s, he has continued to make money during his time in public service. When he first testified before the Senate ahead of his confirmation in 2017, Ross promised that he would divest millions of dollars’ worth of assets. Instead, he clung to them, including investments in Chinese and Russian businesses, even reportedly making money off of being exposed. One holding of his earned Ross seven figures between the time he was appointed and when he finally let it go in Dec. 2017.
A joint report between NPR and the Center for Public Integrity in 2018 found that experts were “still unable to confirm from public disclosure filings whether Ross has cleanly parted ways with all the assets he promised to divest.” The situation was bad enough that the government’s ethics watchdog refused to certify Ross’s disclosure forms given the number of assets he’d previously failed to report. And this September, newly filed forms showed that Ross made millions of dollars in outside income in fiscal year 2020.
The sumptuous feasts that the Ghost of Christmas Present had brought with him had already faded into nothing. The spirit had flitted Ross across the breadth and width of Washington, looking in on the federal employees in his charge as they celebrated Christmas Day. The embers in the fireplace sank lower — the chill in the room remained steady.
Nobody could accuse Ross of having a solid connection with the common man. Case in point, both Ross and Scrooge share a confusion over why on earth the poor would require any sort of charity. “Are there no prisons?” Scrooge asked a gentleman who’d come to ask him for a donation towards the start of "A Christmas Carol." He was told that while they and other institutions like workhouses do still exist, many would rather die than utilize them. “If they would rather die,” said Scrooge in response, “they had better do it, and decrease the surplus population.”
While it’s not quite the level of misanthropy displayed by Dickens’ anti-hero, compare Ross, speaking to CNBC in Jan. 2019 about furloughed federal workers resorting to food banks during a government shutdown: “Banks and credit unions should be making credit available to them. Now true, the people might have to pay a little bit of interest, but the idea that it's paycheck or zero is not a really valid idea.”
Let’s also not forget though the time when, at the start of the Covid-19 pandemic, Ross claimed the coronavirus’s spread could be good for the U.S. in the long run. "I don't want to talk about a victory lap over a very unfortunate, very malignant disease,” he said on Fox Business. "The fact is, it does give business yet another thing to consider when they go through their review of their supply chain... So I think it will help to accelerate the return of jobs to North America.”
The Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come hesitated. The spirit was unsure what visions of the future would potentially sway the 83-year-old man who stood before him. Beneath its hood, the specter shrugged what passed as shoulders. There would be no Christmas morning rebirth for this one.
If you’ve been waiting for a Bob Cratchit-like employee to defend Ross, or a Tiny Tim for him to empathize with, you’re in for a long wait. Over the years, Ross’s leadership — or lack thereof — inside the commerce department has led to articles referring to the office as “a disaster.” (His propensity for falling asleep in meetings hasn’t helped endear him to staffers either.)
“He has completely lost the trust of the building and staff are just holding on, waiting for it to be over,” one former Commerce official told the Washington Post in 2019.
In the end, the story of “A Christmas Carol” is ultimately one of redemption. Scrooge’s journey from indifferent skinflint to “as good a friend, as good a master, and as good a man, as the good old city knew, or any other good old city, town, or borough, in the good old world” credits the Christmas spirit with his transformation. But it’s one that any of us can make, should we want to change our ways enough, even without the intervention of Dickens’ ghosts.
I suppose there’s a chance that Ross could one day find such a renewed faith in mankind. Until then, I say what he will not, and ask that this Christmas, God bless us, every one.