Commerce Secretary nominee Wilbur Ross reassured senators so often during his confirmation hearing Wednesday that several members of Congress offered a suggestion: Perhaps Donald Trump should follow his Cabinet pick’s lead.
Ross, a 79-year-old veteran private equity investor with a net worth approaching $3 billion, had already impressed the senators by agreeing in a filing this week to divest some 90% of his financial holdings and resign more than 40 professional titles.
By the end of the nearly four-hour hearing, there seemed little doubt that Ross would be approved for the job. “This hearing is a piece of cake compared to some of the other nominees that are going through the process,” Sen. Bill Nelson, the ranking Democratic member of the Senate Commerce Committee, said in wrapping up the proceedings. (By comparison, the confirmation hearing for Secretary of State nominee Rex Tillerson lasted nine hours.)
During the questioning, Ross addressed a wide swath of topics that could fall under his domain as secretary of commerce, from renegotiating the trade agreement with Mexico and Canada known as NAFTA (he and Trump plan to tackle that first), to tourism in Cuba (he’s never been), to illegal steel dumping (he vowed to crack down and punish offenders), and even fishing and king crabs (he thinks we should be eating more homegrown seafood, rather than importing it). He also expressed a great deal of skepticism about Chinese efforts to invest in U.S. tech and media companies.
At times, Ross defended some of the less popular actions of his soon-to-be-boss Trump, such as the President-elect’s decision to pass along some of his business interests to family members rather than completely divesting them as Ross himself had. “I think it’s for him to judge,” Ross said. “I’m not intimate enough with the details of his holdings to even have a clear understanding of just how extensive they are, although I know they’re quite huge.” He further resisted senators’ calls for a promise that he would report any attempt by a U.S. trade partner to use Trump family assets as leverage —whether as a threat or incentive —in negotiations.
But Ross also seemed to break with Trump by expressing confidence in climate change research, revealing a passion for data and new technology that served as a common thread underpinning many of his responses. As head of the Commerce Department, after all, Ross will have primary oversight of national cybersecurity policy.
Here’s what Ross had to say about technology issues during his confirmation hearing —from driverless cars to cyberattacks to the Internet of things:
Ross: “I think cyber, if nothing else, was a big enough issue in the [presidential] campaign that everybody is very sensitized to it for very local reasons.
“But it is going to be an increasing issue from a whole variety of directions, and it’s very complicated—you don’t want to compromise the privacy side of things; on the other side you need real world protection against people who intend to do us harm, economic harm or military harm. It wouldn’t surprise me at all if that will be the kind of thing that will come before the Congress over and over again….
“I absolutely do [support developing stronger responses to punish countries that perpetrate cyberattacks in the U.S.]. To me the most terrifying form of warfare would be if there was some simultaneous cyber attack on our grid, on the banking system, and on our transportation system. That would be quite a devastating thing, and yet in theory, absent some real protective measures, that could happen.”
Ross (responding to a question about the most lucrative opportunities for the U.S.): “The things we’re the best at in many ways are the technologically advanced things.
“And I think we also are going to have to cope with the challenge combined with the opportunity of some of the technological advances. For example, driverless cars are probably a very good thing, they seem to be, in any event, an inevitable thing. But that presumably will also lead to driverless trucks, and there are something like three million American adults who depend on over-the-road trucks for their livelihood, and it’s a pretty good livelihood. And then you also have the shorter-trip drivers as well. So I think what we have to do is figure out how to make sure we get the benefits of the improved technology and yet cope with the dislocation that it will inevitably produce in certain of the industries. So I think that’s going to be a real balancing act.”
INTERNET OF THINGS
Ross: “I think all aspects of Internet need encouragement.
“There are issues, technical issues, privacy issues and such as that that come up, so it’s not a simple subject. But when President-elect Trump convened the meeting of the high-tech CEOs some weeks ago, he was kind enough to have me be very much involved with that, and I was impressed with how willing the high-tech people were to work with the new administration, to try to deal with these kinds of issues. Even though as it happens during the campaign, we were not necessarily the recipient of much support from them. So I think that was a very good thing, and some of those leaders have followed up with me subsequently with some more specific suggestions. So I look forward to a constructive relationship in those series of areas.”
Ross: “I’m a very big proponent of cloud.
“We’ve used it a lot in private sector and as far as we can tell, it is not only more efficient, it’s probably also more secure, for lots of very complicated technical reasons. I think it’s a very important thing for government to do, and also to have systems that talk to each other. There’s an awful lot of siloing both within Commerce and outside of Commerce. And I think that is not a very satisfactory end result. We need to all be on similar quality and efficiency of communication. I think the tricky part of it is, where do you get the funding to make the changeover? Because there are some one-time costs to doing these. Commerce already has several initiatives under way, and I’m certainly encouraged by what I’ve learned about those. And I think much more could be done.”
FOREIGN TECH INVESTMENT
Ross: “One of the most important questions facing us right now…is also little high-tech companies making little venture capital investments, and maybe the investments aren’t so significant but the technology perhaps is.
“And in areas like semiconductors, I’m very, very concerned about that, because the Chinese are the world’s largest consumer of semiconductors, so far mainly importing it, a lot from here. Second, when President-elect Trump convened the high-tech CEOs a few weeks ago, I was struck to learn from them that the closer they get to content, the more constrictive the Chinese are on their activities. So it seems not very reciprocal that [Chinese businesses] want to control entertainment and other media here and yet are denying our companies anything getting remotely close to that.”
Ross (responding to a question from Senator Ted Cruz about the Commerce Department’s recent decision to allow privatization of the Internet’s management system, known as the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN), which transferred from U.S. government control to an international consortium in October):
“As such a big market and really as the inventors of the Internet, I’m a little surprised that we seem to be essentially voiceless in the governance of that activity. That strikes me as an intellectually incorrect solution. But I’m not aware of what it is that we actually can do right now to deal with that. If it exists, if some realistic alternative comes up, I’d be very interested.”
Ross’s business and financial interests, many of which he has pledged to divest, run the gamut across industries, and include venture capital, private equity and hedge funds; stakes in foreign and domestic banks as well as in energy, shipping and mining companies; and shares in Apple (AAPL), cyber security company FireEye (FEYE) and airplane manufacturer Boeing (BA). Given the wide range of interests that the Commerce Department touches, it’s perhaps no surprise that Ross is shedding so many of those ties.