Wilbur Ross: Donald Trump's new commerce chief called Brexit 'God-given opportunity' to take trade from UK

Billionaire formerly known as the 'bankruptcy king' will lead negotiations for British-American free trade deal

Rachel Roberts
Tuesday 28 February 2017 15:41
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Billionaire investor Wilbur Ross arrives in the lobby of Trump Tower in Manhattan, New York. The US President-elect Donald Trump is holding meetings at Trump Tower as he continues to fill in key positions in his new administration
Billionaire investor Wilbur Ross arrives in the lobby of Trump Tower in Manhattan, New York. The US President-elect Donald Trump is holding meetings at Trump Tower as he continues to fill in key positions in his new administration

A billionaire investor who said Brexit was “a God-given opportunity” to take trade from the UK has been confirmed as Donald Trump’s Commerce Secretary.

In his new role, Wilbur Ross will be among those leading a potential free-trade deal between the US and the UK – although his comments sparked fears America will seek to exploit the uncertainty created by Brexit to win business.

Mr Ross hit the headlines when he said in December when he urged Cypriot financiers to strike during this "period of confusion" in Britain to draw businesses away from the City.

"I recommend that Cyprus should adopt and immediately announce even more liberal financial service policies than it already has so that it can try to take advantage of the inevitable relocations that will occur during the period of confusion,” he said.

The Labour Party called his comments “a statutory warning” to the UK from the US that it could be exploited because of Brexit.

Mr Ross made his fortune as a private equity investor by taking advantage of trade deals with countries including China and Mexico and was once nicknamed “the bankruptcy king” for buying out distressed companies and selling them for a profit.

Said by Forbes to be worth £2.5 billion, Mr Ross will be tasked with leading plans to overhaul trade deals such as the North American Free Trade Agreement (Nafta) for the Trump administration.

Despite opposition from Senate Minority Leader, Chuck Schumer, former Democrat Mr Ross was easily confirmed by a vote of 72-27.

Mr Schumer accused Mr Ross of having questionable business links to Russia and described an apparent reluctance by the White House to answer questions as another example of the Trump administration “abandoning transparency.”

A group of Democrats wrote to the White House asking whether any members of the Trump administration had received recent loans from the Bank of Cyprus – which is partly owned by a close of ally of Russian President Vladimir Putin, Ukranian billionaire Viktor Vekselberg.

Mr Ross has indicated he will step down from his position as Vice-Chair of the bank to avoid any potential conflicts of interest.

The bank’s former chairman, Vladimir Strzhalkovsky, is reportedly close to President Putin, a fellow former KGB agent.

The new Commerce Secretary has been required to divest a significant portion of his business interests in order to be confirmed, and will now be expected to put Mr Trump’s “America first” pledge into practice.

At his confirmation hearing, he appeared to try and dispel the idea that Mr Trump will engage in protectionism.

“I am pro-trade, but I am pro sensible trade,” he told the Senate.

As head of a car parts company, he reportedly outsourced around 2,700 jobs from the US to Mexico – taking advantage of some of the Nafta legislation he will now be required to roll back.

According to the Wall Street Journal, Mr Ross will maintain a minority stake he holds in a company backed by the Chinese Government, creating another potential conflict of interest.

Mr Ross served under President Clinton on the board of the US-Russian Investment Fund, and was later an adviser on privatisation to then New York Mayor, Rudy Giulliani.

He said he backed Republican Mr Trump because he believed the country needed “a more radical new approach to government.”

Mr Trump has assembled the wealthiest cabinet in American history, provoking much criticism from the Democrats and commentators.

Senator Elizabeth Warren, Democrat of Massachusetts, said on Twitter that Mr Ross was “practically a cartoon stereotype of a Wall Street fat cat with no interest in anyone but himself.”

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