The White House is pushing a top aide to Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross out of the Trump administration, the first round of house-cleaning after the 2020 census debacle and clashes over tech policy.
In recent months, Commerce policy director Earl Comstock has angered Trump’s acting chief of staff Mick Mulvaney, White House lawyers, members of the National Security Council and officials at the National Economic Council, according to five current and former administration officials. The irritation extends to the highest staff level of the White House, several officials stressed, citing both Comstock’s handling of the 2020 U.S. census’s citizenship question and the internal debate over spectrum policy as key areas of disagreement.
One former administration official said he could not think of anyone who “had pissed off as many senior White House officials” as Comstock, who critics allege often tried to exceed his own authority as a top Commerce policy staffer. Comstock also clashed with officials across federal agencies, according to one administration official.
While officials said the process of forcing out Comstock through a firing or resignation is underway, the date of his actual departure remains unclear. He was at the agency until the end of the day on Wednesday.
The White House referred questions about Comstock to the Commerce Department. A Commerce spokesperson said “there is no truth to these rumors. Earl Comstock is an instrumental and valuable member of the Commerce team. He has a keen understanding of the functions of the federal government and has spearheaded multiple departmental initiatives as the deputy chief of staff for policy. Earl will continue to work tirelessly on behalf of the Secretary, the Department of Commerce and the American people.”
As Mulvaney has sought to exert greater control over federal agencies, Comstock’s performance has come under far greater scrutiny — similar to how the White House also has paid close to attention recently to top officials at the departments of Labor and Health and Human Services.
Comstock’s role in failing to put the citizenship question on the U.S. census was just the latest high-profile blow for him, since it’s an issue the president cares about deeply — adding to widespread views inside the White House that Commerce is not effectively executing the president’s agenda.
Administration officials said Comstock’s eventual departure is not necessarily a foreshadowing of Ross’s own tenure in the Cabinet — though the president has been frustrated over the past year with his Commerce secretary’s negotiating prowess in trade talks and the census question.
And Commerce officials don’t see Ross, an 81-year-old investor and longtime friend of the president, leaving imminently despite months of speculation and ongoing sparring with lawmakers. “He likes doing the job,” said a personal familiar with Ross.
Comstock, who acted as Ross’s sherpa during the confirmation process, clashed with other Trump administration officials on a number of policy issues, including spectrum and net neutrality.
A feud among Trump's advisers over 5G wireless — a technology crucial to U.S. competition with China over the future of the internet — spilled into public view in March, when Commerce raised concerns that FCC Chairman Ajit Pai's effort to free up more 5G airwaves for the wireless sector would interfere with the government's use of nearby airwaves for weather forecasting. The White House ultimately sided with the FCC in that debate.
But that did not end the internal infighting. Pai accused the department of “blocking our efforts at every single turn” during a Senate oversight hearing in June. He said the relationship between his agency and Commerce has deteriorated since David Redl abruptly resigned his post as head of Commerce’s NTIA in May.
Commerce’s National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, with support from NASA, has raised concerns that using 24 GHz airwaves for 5G services could degrade weather forecasting systems’ ability to make predictions. The FCC concluded its auction of the airwaves in May.
Sen. Ron Johnson (R-Wis.) in June warned Ross that a senior adviser “may be placing personal animosity ahead of our country's 5G goals.” Ross responded by saying officials had reached a “workable compromise” — an assertion the FCC denied. The issue also arose in a House hearing Tuesday on spectrum policy.
Comstock has not been in lock-step with the FCC in other policy areas. Early in his tenure at Commerce, he quietly opposed the FCC’s repeal of Obama-era net neutrality regulations by backing a congressional effort to restore the rules. The one-time Republican Senate staffer believes telecom companies like AT&T and Verizon need firm oversight, and had previously challenged the Obama-era rules in court because he did not believe they went far enough in reining in broadband providers.
Daniel Lippman and John Hendel contributed to this report.