The phrase “[department head] is falling asleep at [Cabinet-level department]” would normally describe a profound level of negligence, but that interpretation doesn’t apply to Commerce secretary Wilbur Ross, who is said to be literally falling asleep in department meetings – to the extent that his schedulers have to severely limit his face time with senior staffers.
“There’s a small window where he’s able to focus and pay attention and not fall asleep,” a former outside adviser told Politico. “Because he tends to fall asleep in meetings, they try not to put him in a position where that could happen, so they’re very careful and conscious about how they schedule certain meetings.”
The Commerce Department pushed a different picture of Ross’s stamina on Politico, describing him as a “tireless worker who is the sole decision-maker at the department. He routinely works 12-hour days and travels often.” (Ross also tweeted Monday morning, claiming that the “report bears no resemblance to reality and appears to be solely sourced from disgruntled former employees whose poor performance led to their departures.) But Commerce officials reportedly work to keep Ross from testifying at congressional oversight hearings, fearing he couldn’t handle the pressure. “There’s a great deal of effort to shield him from testifying ever again,” a source close to the department told Politico. It’s a worry reportedly shared by the White House. Following a seven-hour oversight hearing in March, “There was a great deal of concern to not have him testify expressed from the White House,” a source told Politico.
The doubt that Commerce staff have in their 81-year-old leader’s ability to keep his head off the table is just one somnambulant example of the reported chaos in the department. According to Politico, Ross spends a great chunk of his time at the White House currying favor with the president, who considered firing him after the department failed to force a citizenship question onto the 2020 Census. In recent weeks, there have been “unceremonious” departures from high-level staff who were buttressing the department’s ability to function. Meanwhile, policy director Earl Comstock — who helped pave the way for a Ross nomination — reportedly has a micromanagement problem. “Things come to a screeching halt because he demands to be the final decision on everything, whether it’s an email that goes out to The Hill or a letter to respond to X, Y, and Z,” a source familiar with Commerce told Politico.
The report highlights yet another department in crisis under President Trump. Speaking about his ProPublica investigation into the directionless nature of the Department of Housing and Urban Development under Ben Carson, reporter Alec MacGillis described HUD as “very aimless … It’s through inattention and dysfunction rather than outright activist dismantling.” A more actively harmful example lies at the Environmental Protection Agency, where ex-head Scott Pruitt and current director Andrew Wheeler have caused a mass exodus of career employees disheartened by the EPA’s new status as a deregulatory agency. Perhaps the Cabinet departments are just emulating the White House, where chaos is a hum in the background to get used to.
This post has been updated to include a comment from Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross.