Politics

This Is Still Happening: Elaine Chao

An ongoing roundup of Trump administration malfeasance.

Portrait of Elaine Chao.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by Phillip Faraone/Getty Images for Fortune.

Donald Trump said during the 2016 campaign that he would only “hire the best people.” In reality, his administration has been beset by levels of corruption rarely seen outside of the worst dictatorships and global sports governing bodies. Given their boss’s open venality and complete lack of accountability, it’s been hard to keep track of everything that Trump officials have themselves gotten away with.

This Is Still Happening is a new feature in which Slate will attempt to offer an update on Cabinet-level corruption, what could be done to bring the officials to account, and what Democrats are doing in response (generally, nothing). The first installment is about a figure who has mostly flown under the public radar, Elaine Chao.

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The Official: Secretary of Transportation Elaine Chao

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What Is Still Happening: Chao, who is married to Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and who previously served as George W. Bush’s labor secretary, faced back-to-back-to-back-to-back scandals this summer with a series of pieces about her and her husband’s various public grafts.

First, at the end of May, the Wall Street Journal published a report that Chao had failed to divest her shares in a crushed stone, sand, and gravel company, which supplied construction materials to the transportation sector, a year after she had promised to do so. In the meantime, she had netted more than $40,000. (She has reportedly divested since the report came out.)

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A few days later, in early June, the New York Times published a 5,500-word feature on her family’s shipping company, its deep ties to the government of China, the money it has provided Chao and her husband and his campaigns, and Chao’s apparent efforts to use her positions to bolster the business. Among the highlights of that piece: Chao repeatedly sought to include family members and relatives affiliated with the company in meetings with top Chinese officials during overseas trips (this was reportedly stymied by State Department officials); in a response to a Senate confirmation questionnaire, Chao failed to list multiple honorary awards, titles, and appointments she had received in China; her agency has proposed U.S. maritime program budget cuts that would hurt competitors of her family’s business; she took at least 21 meetings or interviews with Chinese-language media in her first year in office, including multiple appearances with her father, the company’s former chairman; she attended an event celebrating a company deal that involved transit projects that fell under her oversight; she did not recuse herself from any decisions affecting the shipping industry. The Times also reported that 13 members of Chao’s family had given $1.1 million to McConnell’s campaigns and political action committees tied to him between 1989 and 2018. The paper noted that Chao’s father had given the couple a gift of between $5 million and $25 million in 2008 that catapulted McConnell to become the 10th wealthiest senator.

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One week after the Times story, Politico reported on Chao’s apparent efforts to boost her husband’s political career through favorable Department of Transportation treatment for McConnell-friendly Kentucky communities. Among the highlights of that piece: Chao had an aide on her payroll specifically working as an intermediary to McConnell’s office and dedicated to Kentucky transportation projects; Owensboro, the Kentucky community where the special adviser was from, received an $11.5 million federal grant for a highway-widening project after it was rejected by the previous administration; days before launching his 2020 Senate campaign, McConnell held an event in Owensboro touting his work for the community; after Chao met with a top county official, her department approved “a $67 million discretionary grant to upgrade roads in rural Boone County, another McConnell stronghold northeast of Louisville.”

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Finally, two weeks after the Politico report, in late June, Yahoo News reported how a separate McConnell stronghold, the town of Paducah, had benefited from Chao’s largesse. Members of the community of 25,000 had donated $331,029.50 to McConnell’s reelection campaign in 2013 and 2014, contributing at three times the rate of Louisville’s residents and eight times the rate of Lexington’s. Meanwhile: A local marine transportation equipment company received $377,000 from Chao’s DOT in 2017 to boost the town’s dry dock capabilities; Chao helped kill an administration proposal that would have ended a subsidy for small rural airports like Paducah’s; last year, Chao opened a Maritime Administration office in Paducah; and Chao’s department offered a $251,927 grant to the town for maritime highway projects.

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How Long It Has Been Going On: On and off for more than a decade. It’s hard to pinpoint when exactly Chao started up with all of this stuff, because she was doing it in her prior capacity as Bush’s labor secretary as well.

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For example, the Times reported that “her father accompanied her on at least one trip that she took as labor secretary, in 2008, sitting in on meetings, including with China’s premier, one of the country’s top officials.”

And Yahoo reported that her support for Paducah stretched back at least to 2006, when she visited to tout a Labor Department program that compensated former employees of a Cold War–era uranium enrichment plant. As Yahoo reported:

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Compensating workers who handled radioactive materials for the sake of national security is laudable, but the effort also appeared to disproportionately benefit those in Paducah. A 2009 investigation by McClatchy-Tribune found that Chao’s department paid $500 million to former Paducah Gaseous Diffusion Plant employees, a full eighth of the total funds spent by the Department of Labor at that time to compensate workers who may have been affected, although the location was one of 20 major sites covered by the program.

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Also significantly, in October 2008, at the end of her term as labor secretary and within a month of McConnell’s closest reelection challenge in decades, Chao visited the offices of Paducah’s only newspaper and made the case for his reelection, in a possible violation of the Hatch Act. In its supportive editorial, the paper ultimately cited the Labor Department gaseous plant money as one of McConnell’s accomplishments.

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What Would Normally Happen: It’s hard to say that anything would normally happen considering much of it falls under the vast rubric of typical—some might say masterful—D.C. cronyism. In response to the series of articles, for instance, McConnell actually joked that his wife wasn’t doing enough for Kentucky, while boasting about the money he has been able to secure. As noted, some of the behavior goes back to the Bush administration, and nothing was done about it then. Democrats could, if they wanted, open an investigation of Chao for a host of apparent Hatch Act violations, or even begin an impeachment inquiry.

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What Democrats Have Done: Nothing so far.

What Is Likely to Be Done: It looks like not much. The Department of Transportation’s inspector general might normally investigate, but it reportedly lacks the “will” to do so without significant pressure from Congress. The Daily Beast reported in June that Democrats in the House, meanwhile, were afraid to open proper inquiries into Chao’s alleged abuses. “Some lawmakers who spoke to The Daily Beast expressed unease—at this time—at calling out the secretary for fear that doing so would affect their ability to advance infrastructure projects in their home districts,” the publication reported. “With aggressive oversight efforts already launched into several other Trump Cabinet officials, senior Democratic aides say a sense of fatigue has set in among members, one that’s been exacerbated by the difficulty the party has had in making progress on already-launched investigative efforts.”

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Still, the Daily Beast noted, there’s a chance that Democrats at least do slightly more than nothing. Rep. Peter DeFazio, the chairman of the House transportation committee, told the Daily Beast that his committee was super busy with its other oversight duties, but might “review how they do grants because they’ve been slow-walking transit grants around the country” and “look at other grants that are at secretarial discretion, and what documentation they may have for such grants.” The chairman of the Coast Guard and Maritime Transportation Subcommittee, Rep. Sean Maloney, has further said he has been given the green light to investigate the deals described in the recent reporting, though it is unclear what that will entail.

All of this will surely have Chao shaking in her boots!

How Impeachable This Stuff Is: There was a time when a comprehensive and damning investigation like the one in the Times might have led to congressional hearings, if not a resignation. But we are not living in that time anymore, and Chao’s apparent large-scale cronyism and self-serving spending seem quaint and not especially urgent next to the innovative corruption of her administration colleagues. 3 out of 10.

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