A trove of leaked documents reveals a direct link between the highest levels of the Trump administration and the inner circle of Russian President Vladimir Putin.
New documents show that Donald Trump's commerce secretary Wilbur Ross has business ties to Russian President Vladimir Putin that he failed to disclose during his confirmation process earlier this year.
The leaked documents, called the "Paradise Papers," reveal that Ross has a financial stake in a shipping firm that receives millions of dollars in annual revenue from a company whose owners include Putin's son-in-law and other members of the Russian president's inner circle, some of whom are currently under sanctions imposed by the U.S. Treasury Department.
Ross used a chain of offshore companies to retain his financial stake in the shipping company, called Navigator Holdings, according to the leaked files. However, he failed to clearly disclose this interest during the confirmation process for his nomination for commerce secretary, despite repeated questions about his ties to Russia.
The business relationship revealed in the new documents means that Ross stands to benefit from the operations of a company controlled by Putin's family and allies.
As commerce secretary, Ross has a direct hand in decisions about trade and manufacturing policy, and holds considerable influence over America's economic relationship with other countries, including Russia.
Theoretically, Ross could use his role in the Trump administration to push for policies and partnerships that would benefit him financially, including by influencing policies on sanctions against Russia.
Ross, a billionaire investor and close friend of Trump, has already come under scrutiny in the ongoing investigation of potential financial ties between Russia and the Trump administration.
In March, The Guardian reported that Ross had presided over a major financial deal with a Russian oligarch linked to Putin while serving in his previous role as the vice-chairman of the Bank of Cyprus. Also under Ross's leadership, the Bank of Cyprus granted Alfa Bank — described by The Guardian as Russia’s largest private bank — four additional years to pay back a debt.
The Bank of Cyprus is the same bank where former Trump campaign chairman Paul Manafort allegedly hid payments he received while working for a pro-Putin Ukrainian candidate. On Monday, Manafort was indicted on several charges, one of which was money laundering.
Raising even more questions about Ross's financial history, Forbes reported in October that the commerce secretary had transferred more than $2 billion of his assets into trusts for family members in the months between Trump’s election and his inauguration. Upon joining the Trump administration, Ross failed to report these assets on federal financial disclosure forms.
Former State Department officials expressed utter bafflement at the revelations.
"I don’t understand why anybody would decide to maintain this kind of relationship going into a senior government position," said Daniel Fried, an assistant secretary of state for European and Eurasian affairs in the George W Bush administration. "What is he thinking?"
And Peter Harrell, a senior state department official under President Barack Obama, who worked on sanctions against Russia, noted he was "frankly surprised" by the news, but that at this point in the Trump era, perhaps he shouldn't be.
"There seems to be a Russian in every closet," Harrell observed.
Indeed, the news about Ross is galling, but for this White House, it is unfortunately part of a pattern. And with the special counsel's investigations ramping up, we could see even more stories like this come out about those in Trump's duplicitous inner circle.