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Economist James Henry says the Senate failed to seriously investigate the networks of Trump’s new billionaire cabinet member

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SHARMINI PERIES: It’s The Real News Network. I’m Sharmini Peries, coming to you from Baltimore. In a 72 to 27 vote in Senate on Monday night a billionaire, Wilbur Ross, was confirmed as Donald Trump’s new Commerce Secretary. The 79-year-old Ross who has a net worth of $2.9 billion took oath of office the very next day. In addition to dealing with trade and tax issues, Ross will also oversee the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, which strangely enough, is an organization within the Commerce Department. Joining us now to discuss Wilbur Ross as Commerce Secretary, is James Henry. James is a leading economist, attorney and investigative journalist who has been investigating Trump’s business connections to Russia. He has recently published a piece on Wilbur Ross titled, ‘Wilbur Ross Comes to D.C. with an Unexamined History of Russian Connections’. It’s published in Thanks for joining us today, James. JAMES HENRY: You’re quite welcome. SHARMINI PERIES: James, what is your reaction to Wilbur Ross’s confirmation as the new Commerce Secretary? JAMES HENRY: I think it’s astonishing that a fellow who’s deeply involved in a Russian haven bank, Bank of Cyprus, the largest one on this offshore haven, that’s been a leading conduit for Russian flight capital and money laundering has, just been approved with the vote of 72 to 27. This U.S. Senate didn’t ask a single question about his Cyprus connections and the fact that he has three Russian oligarchs as partners and one of them is a KGB agent. The person that Ross personally be nominated for this bank is the former head of Deutsche Bank, which was just indicted for money laundering of Russian money and as Donald Trump’s largest creditor. One of the oligarchs that was involved in the Bank of Cyprus also purchased Donald Trump’s house in Florida for $95 million, twice what he paid for it back in 2008. So there’s a lot of connections here that I would have hoped that the senate would have explored before they approved his nomination. SHARMINI PERIES: Now, uh, Senator Elizabeth Warren, in reference to the confirmation wrote that Wilbur Ross is practically a cartoon stereotype of Wall Street’s fat cat with no interest in anyone but himself. She tweeted that. And then, of course, Senator Chuck Schumer, the Democrat of New York and minority leader also had trouble with it. He said that, Ross’s questionable business ties to Russia was something to be concerned about. He said that Mr. Trump and Mr. Ross’s administration had failed to be forthcoming about the connections to Russia and that that was troubling. Now these are two Democrats that obviously voted against this but really the opposition vote was only 27, which means that many Democrats voted for Ross. Give us a sense of why that happened. JAMES HENRY: Well, a couple of weeks ago I tried to get some senators to write a letter to Ross and we provided a lot of facts. They did that and, unfortunately, Ross refused to answer any of the questions that they raised, partly because we couldn’t get a single Republican Senator to defect here. But I expected the vote anyway to be a lot closer but he got 20 out of the 46 Democrats in the Senate to vote in favor of Wilbur Ross. So, I think part of the problem is that there’s about 12 of these 20 senators that voted for him—so-called “Vichy Democrats” who are facing a re-election in 2018. He’s got a lot of friends with a lot of money and the campaign is going to be expensive. Six of those Democrats up for re-election are in states that Trump carried. So there’s a lot of pressure. And so you found people like Senator Casey from Pennsylvania, Senator Brown from Ohio voting in favor of Ross. Senator Feinstein from California, who is 83 and I would have thought was beyond influence here, also voted for Ross. So, he has a lot of connections. He’s also kind of “The establishment investment banker”. He’s Harvard Business School, Yale, on the boards of quite a few non-profits, 12 non-profits, 19 offshore companies, that none of which we know much about. But, even though he has all these things that you’d really like to ask much more questions about, the Senate is, I think, clearly not able to do another hearing on this guy and so he sort of sailed through. The disturbing thing about another concern we have about Ross is that some of his partners were you know, appear to have been flying in and out of the United States quite a bit on the campaign trail. One guy, the former Potash King, Rybolovlev, was bird-dogging him in his airbus A-319, to Las Vegas to Charlotte, North Carolina, to Concord, North Carolina, showing up at the same time that Trump’s planes were there. So that’s a very curious thing and I documented that in my article. Rachel Maddow also covered the story, by the way, last night but she seems to have gotten much of her material from our report. So you can look at her program and you can also look at our report at SHARMINI PERIES: Which we will put a link to just below this interview. Now James the new Commerce Secretary has also served on the Board of the Bank of Cyprus since 2014. You said in an interview you had actually done with The Real News a few months ago. Can you discuss the tenure there and how it has affected people and the economy of Cyprus? JAMES HENRY: Well, Cyprus went through a real, what we call, “the finance curse”. This is an economy that accounted for most of the direct investments into Russia. There was a lot of money laundering and round tripping of investment going through Cyprus companies. There’s 50,000 Russians living in Cyprus, which is a population of just 880,000 people. The banks there are absolutely notorious. And the Bank of Cyprus is the leading example of that; 2013 they went belly up and had to be bailed out with a ten billion euro loan from the ECB and the IMF. And, Ross stepped in at that point and became Vice-chairman of the bank. Invested $250 million euros with his partnership group. And he acquired about 17% of this bank. But he was looking across the table from a guy who had been appointed by Vladimir Putin, as the other Vice-chairman of the bank. Most of the investors in the bank are Russians, including three big oligarchs, one named Rybolovlev, we’ve talked about, but another one Viktor Vekselberg, has invested all over Europe and had some Internet companies that have been implicated in spying in Switzerland. So you know, to say the least, involvement in this bank is curious. And now Ross says that he will divest from the bank and give up the Vice-chairmanship now, but he’s tolerated these folks as partners. And it’s sort of like just because you are running out of the brothel at high speed doesn’t explain what you were doing there. SHARMINI PERIES: Interesting. Now also interesting is that Ross has earned praise from the United Steelworkers President, Leo Gerard, for saving jobs in the steel industry. Where is he coming from and is this so? HENRY JAMES: Well, he was involved in some restructuring efforts in the steel industry and apparently got along pretty well with the unions in Pennsylvania and elsewhere. And other examples we can point to where he basically was involved in really downsizing projects that he invested in and losing jobs. So I think that, if it was just job creation it’s not clear that this vulture capitalist really deserves much credit. He was also deeply involved in bailing out Donald Trump back in the early ’90s and, you know, his casino operations. That was when they first got to know each other. And he’s been involved in bringing Deutsche Bank, which is Donald Trump’s largest creditor, into the Bank of Cyprus. He’s appointed the new CEO is the former head of Deutsche Bank. Deutsche Bank was just fined $650 million for laundering $10 billion of Russian dirty money in January. So you know, all of these connections are basically sitting there waiting for a decent investigation and we have people in Congress now, some calling for a special prosecutor or for some kind of commission on this. I don’t think Donald Trump is going to be able to ignore these Russian connections forever. We need to get to the bottom of some of his connections. Unfortunately one of the key posts that Ross now runs, as head of the Commerce Department, is the Bureau of Sanctions Control. Part of which overlooks the sanctions the U.S. has imposed on Putin’s inner circle. And so it’ll be interesting to watch and see if Ross relaxes those sanctions. SHARMINI PERIES: All right, James, I thank you so much for coming on and elaborating on Wilbur Ross’s credentials. I urge everyone to click on the link below, which is an article that James Henry has written, titled, “Wilbur Ross Comes to D.C. With an Unexamined History of Russian Connections”, which is published in I thank you for joining today, James. JAMES HENRY: Good to be with you. Thanks. SHARMINI PERIES: And thank you for joining us here on The Real News Network. ————————- END

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James S. Henry is an investigative economist and lawyer, a Global Justice Fellow at Yale University, and a Senior Advisor at the Tax Justice Network. Previously, James served as Chief Economist at the international consultancy firm McKinsey & Co. As an investigative journalist his work has appeared in numerous publications like Forbes, The Nation and The New York Times.