President Donald Trump is telling people he wants to replace Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross by the end of the year, according to three people familiar with the matter who are close to the president.
Trump favors Linda McMahon to replace Ross in the role, said these people, who spoke on the condition of anonymity. He is also considering Ray Washburne, whom Trump appointed as president and CEO of Overseas Private Investment Corporation last year, according to one source.
McMahon, head of the Small Business Administration and former CEO of World Wrestling Entertainment, has told some of the president’s closest advisors that she’s likely to take the job if she’s offered it, people with direct knowledge of the matter said.
These people also said that a final decision has not been made and Trump could always change his mind at the last minute. It is also not clear whether Trump would push out Ross. The president has often expressed displeasure about Cabinet members but has stopped short of making a personnel move. Yet, these developments come two days after Trump forced out Attorney General Jeff Sessions, a frequent target of the president’s wrath.
White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders did not deny that McMahon has become the lead contender to replace Ross. “No personnel announcements at this time,” Sanders said.
The Small Business Administration didn’t deny it, either. “Administrator McMahon is proud to serve the President and is focused on advocating on behalf of America’s 30 million small businesses,” the SBA said in a statement to CNBC.
Sanders did not respond to follow up requests on whether Ross will leave the administration by the end of the year or whether Washburne is under consideration for the Commerce post.
The notion that Ross could be out soon received some pushback from elsewhere in the administration. “There is no indication that Secretary Ross will be gone any time soon. He’s posted significant wins for the president’s trade agenda and that shows,” said a senior administration official close to Ross.
Another official close to Ross noted that the president “has never voiced any discontent” about the Commerce secretary.
Ross, an 80-year-old billionaire who made a fortune in purchasing assets of companies in distress, watched the election returns with Trump on Tuesday night at the White House, said a source with knowledge of the situation.
Washburne and a Commerce Department spokesperson did not return requests for comment.
Politico first reported that McMahon was favored to replace Ross.
There have been reports that Ross had fallen out of favor with the president. Still, Ross has continued to support the president’s trade agenda, particularly as it pertains to the tariffs he has implemented against countries that have historically been U.S. allies. He has also been a champion of Trump’s trade battle with China.
On the morning Trump announced he would be moving ahead with 10 percent tariffs on $200 billion worth of Chinese imports, Ross defended the decision and played down the idea that the price of U.S. goods would increase because of a trade war.
“Nobody is going to actually notice [prices hikes] at the end of the day,” he said at the time, because they will be “spread across thousands and thousands of products.”
Trump’s connections to the McMahon family
Linda McMahon’s husband and public face of the WWE, Vince McMahon, is close friends with Trump. The two squared off in a wrestling match in 2007. Before that, Trump sponsored two of the wrestling company’s Wrestlemania events in Atlantic City during the late 1980s. Trump is enshrined in the WWE Hall of Fame, along with superstars such as Hulk Hogan and Andre the Giant.
The McMahon and Trump alliance then expanded into the political world.
Linda McMahon was a top donor to two super PACs that supported Trump’s presidential candidacy, including $6 million to Rebuilding America Now and $1 million to Future45, according to Federal Election Commission filings.
Vince McMahon gave just over $67,000 to the Republican National Committee that year.
In October, the president donated his second quarter salary to the Small Business Administration, McMahon announced from the White House.
“He clearly understands the value of small businesses,” McMahon said of the 30 million small businesses in the U.S.
— CNBC’s Ylan Mui and Lori Ann Larocco contributed to this report.