Wilbur Ross, the billionaire investor whom Trump tapped late last month to lead the Commerce Department, backed Romney's damaging comments in a September 2012 interview with Indian TV station NDTV
, according to video provided to CNN by the liberal research group American Bridge.
"I assume you are aware that he's correct. About 50% of Americans do not in fact pay any tax -- period," Ross said after the interviewer asked Ross if he agreed with Romney's comments. "Whether it's good politics or not is a different question, I'm not qualified to judge that. But it is an accurate statement."
Ross also argued in the 2012 interview that "a very high percentage of the unemployed people claim disabilities so that they can get more money."
He added that "40-some-odd percent of the ones who claim disability claim sudden mental disability."
Ross added: "So there's a lot of nonsense that goes on within the social programs."
While nearly 47% of Americans did not pay any federal income tax around the time of Romney's statement, according to a 2011 finding by the Urban Institute-Brookings Institution Tax Policy Center, Romney did not just cite a statistic. Instead, the 2012 Republican nominee said at a private fundraiser that nearly half of Americans would vote for his opponent President Barack Obama because they depend on the government and believe they are "victims."
"There are 47% who are with him, who are dependent upon government, who believe that they are victims, who believe the government has a responsibility to care for them, who believe that they are entitled to health care, to food, to housing, to you-name-it. That that's an entitlement. And the government should give it to them. And they will vote for this president no matter what," Romney said at a May 2012 fundraiser in comments that were leaked in September 2012.
"And so my job is is not to worry about those people. I'll never convince them they should take personal responsibility and care for their lives," Romney went on to say in the comments that deeply damaged his presidential campaign.
Trump transition spokesman Jason Miller defended Ross.
"Few people have done as much to defend American jobs and negotiate good deals for American workers as Wilbur Ross," Miller said in a statement. "Not only is he a proven friend of steelworkers, he's spent his entire career strengthening the manufacturing sector by saving and creating jobs in industries like auto parts, building materials, telecommunications, textiles and coal. As our next Commerce secretary, we can count on Mr. Ross to work with the President-elect to bring back American jobs and put Americans first."
Trump himself criticized Romney's 47% comments several times on the campaign trail as he swatted away criticism from the former Republican nominee.
"Does everyone remember @MittRomney and his famous remarks about 'self-deportation' and '47%'. He was done. I don't need his angry advice!" Trump tweeted in October 2015.
Trump also raised the comments on the campaign trail to argue that Romney "choked" in 2012 and lost an election he should have won.
American Bridge, the group that unearthed the video and provided it to CNN, argued Ross's comments undermine Trump's populist appeal.
"Trump has never looked out for working people, and he's already ditching his 'populist' campaign promises, caving to big donors and filling his cabinet with billionaires like Wilbur Ross who share his disrespect for Americans working hard to get ahead," American Bridge President Jessica Mackler said in a statement.