Trump administration officials and cabinet secretaries are forever finding new and innovative ways to scam the public. But all of that innovation is obscuring some much more common, old-fashioned grifts, ones that D.C.’s biggest power couple is reportedly well-versed in.
Politico reported on Tuesday that emails uncovered between the offices of Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao and her husband, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, show that Chao has met with at least 10 of McConnell’s Kentucky-based backers at the behest of McConnell’s office. Per Politico:
Chao has met at least 10 times with politicians and business leaders from the state in response to requests from McConnell’s office, according to documents provided to POLITICO by the watchdog group American Oversight. In some cases, those people later received what they were hoping for from Chao’s department, including infrastructure grants, the designation of an interstate highway and assistance in getting state funds for a highway project — although the documents don’t indicate the meetings led to those outcomes.
In one email from Feb. 2, 2017, just days after Chao was sworn in, McConnell’s state director emailed a Chao lieutenant asking the secretary to meet with maritime industry lobbyist Jim Adams about proposed changes to “Buy American, Hire American” requirements for offshore drilling equipment. The lobbyist and his wife, a Kentucky state senator who used to work for McConnell, donated $1,500 to McConnell’s 2014 reelection campaign, according to FEC filings.
“The Secretary knows them both well,” McConnell state director Terry Carmack wrote to Todd Inman, who at the time was director of operations at the Department of Transportation. Chao met with the lobbyist the following month, according to her calendar.
The watchdog group American Oversight obtained the emails through a FOIA request of Chao’s office. A Democratic Senate aide told Politico that it was “common” for members to contact cabinet agencies on behalf of constituents. The emails, though, suggest that there is preferential treatment going on for the requests from Kentucky:
“The Secretary has indicated if you have a [Kentucky] specific issue that we should flag for her attention to please continue to go through your normal channels but feel free to contact me directly as well so we can monitor or follow up as necessary,” Inman wrote to McConnell’s then-chief of staff, Brian McGuire, in an email from Feb. 28, 2017.
“There’s a normal channel and a Kentucky channel,” [American Oversight executive director Austin] Evers said. “It would be surprising if there was also an Arizona channel and a California channel.”
The Department of Transportation told Politico that there was nothing to see here, saying that Chao is “responsive to all members and their staff” and “understands the needs of Kentucky,” since it’s her home state.
This is how power really works in D.C. Elaine Chao was one of Trump’s least controversial executive branch nominees, having already flown through the confirmation process in 2001 to be George W. Bush’s Labor Secretary. And even after facing charges of nepotism over her brother-in-law’s appointment to a post in the Labor Department, Chao has continued to skate by unscathed. This is all while she remains inextricably connected to arguably the most powerful person in the whole legislative branch—mostly because she doesn’t openly flaunt her shady dealings like the Trumps or their many idiot advisors do.
It’s unlikely that these emails—or any documents that don’t show the smoke coming out of the gun—will change any of that. And the fact that this all feels normal, even to Democrats, is part of the problem itself.