The inspector generals are coming for Trumpworld! For an administration with a historic aversion to ethics and the propriety of public service, there has been a lot for these internal governmental watchdogs to dig in to. On Wednesday, the inspector general at the lowly old Transportation Department, perhaps the least glamorous of all the Cabinet gigs, released its report outlining the ways in which former Secretary Elaine Chao managed to use the position to deploy public resources to benefit her family. The instances of wrongdoing were not particularly subtle and the department watchdog referred the case to the Department of Justice late last year for possible criminal prosecution. The Justice Department, in the final weeks of the Trump administration, declined to advance the case.
Most of Chao’s questionable behavior revolved around her father, James Chao, and his shipping business, the Foremost Group, which made its mark transporting raw materials, like coal and iron, to China, and continues to do extensive work with Chinese state-owned businesses. The Shanghai-born patriarch of the family started the business after emigrating to the U.S. in the 1950s but has since turned the operation over to Chao’s younger sister Angela Chao. As the secretary of transportation, Elaine Chao was charged with overseeing the American shipping industry. What could possibly go wrong?
For starters, investigators said that Chao routinely asked government employees to help her father in a number of ways, from updating his Wikipedia page to promoting his biography and even building a public relations strategy for the longtime shipping magnate. Chao also made highly questionable moves, such as giving an interview, as a Cabinet-level public official, to a Chinese-language TV station that resembled an infomercial about her father’s success and business acumen. The interview was conducted at the New York City headquarters of the Foremost Group.
Then there was the proposed 2017 trip to China for the Chao family that raised ethics concerns and was ultimately canceled. From the New York Times:
The investigators found that Ms. Chao had used her staff to arrange details for Mr. Chao’s trip to China in October 2017, including asking, through the State Department, for China’s Transport Ministry to arrange for two cars for a six-person delegation, which included Ms. Chao’s younger sister Angela Chao, who had succeeded their father as head of the family shipping company, and Angela Chao’s husband, the venture capitalist Jim Breyer. The trip had been scheduled to include stops at locations in China that had received financial support from the company and also a meeting with “top leaders” in China that was to include Elaine Chao’s father and sister, but not other members of Transportation Department staff.
Chao pushed back against accusations of misusing her office by chalking it up to cultural differences, pointing to a memo outlining the importance of promoting her father as part of her governmental work. “Anyone familiar with Asian culture knows it is a core value in Asian communities to express honor and filial respect toward one’s parents,” the September 2020 memo said. “Asian audiences welcome and respond positively to actions by the secretary that include her father in activities when appropriate.”