Congress Is Finally Investigating Elaine Chao

Photo: Tasos Katopodis (Getty/Uber Elevate)

Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao, who is married to Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, has largely stayed under the radar during her time in the Trump administration due to her focus on more conventional grifts, rather than the transparent looting that others such as Scott Pruitt and Ryan Zinke partook in. On the surface, at least, that appears to be changing.

On Monday, the House Oversight and Reform Committee sent a letter to Chao’s office saying that it was investigating “several allegations” about potential conflicts of interests involving the Transportation secretary, “including troubling questions about whether you are using your office to benefit yourself and your family.” The allegations focus on charges that Chao—who previously served as Labor Secretary under George W. Bush—has used her position to benefit the Foremost Group, an international shipping company founded by her father, James Chao, and co-owned by her sisters.

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Additionally, the Oversight panel is investigating Chao’s failure to sell her stock in the Birmingham-based Vulcan Materials, a paving materials supplier where Chao served on the board of directors before she became Trump’s transportation secretary in 2017. Chao finally sold those stocks in June of this year, over a year after the deadline by which she planned to divest, the Wall Street Journal reported.

The New York Times was the first to report the existence of the letter. Per the Times:

The Times investigation found numerous instances in which Ms. Chao, as transportation secretary, may have boosted Foremost’s image. In addition to inviting her father to the department in 2017, she also appeared at a signing ceremony that August at the Harvard Club in New York involving Foremost and the Sumitomo Group, a Japanese company with mass transit projects in the United States that fell under her oversight.

The letter to Ms. Chao cites moves by the department to cut specific grant programs intended to help support the United States maritime industry. They include cuts proposed, but rejected by Congress, in 2017 and 2018 for the Maritime Security Program, which subsidizes American-flagged cargo ships so they are available, when necessary, to help the Pentagon move supplies to war zones. Cutting those grants could have undermined the American maritime industry at the same time her family’s company was receiving support from the Chinese maritime industry.

Documents requested by the Oversight Committee included emails and communications about a trip to China that was canceled after Chao’s request for relatives to be included in meetings with government officials was flagged by the State Department over ethical concerns. The committee also requested communications within the Transportation Department regarding Foremost Group. The letter was signed by Oversight chair Rep. Elijah Cummings of Maryland, as well as Illinois Rep. Raja Krishnamoorthi, the chair of the economic and consumer policy subcommittee.

Chao’s office told the Times that she’s taken no “official action” to benefit Foremost Group, and called the allegations “media attacks” that were “stale and only attempt to undermine her long career of public service.” The agency also said that Chao’s long-overdue divestment of the Vulcan stock “demonstrates her commitment to going above and beyond what is required in terms of compliance.”

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These aren’t the only ethical concerns about Chao that have popped up this year, though an Oversight spokeswoman called the letter an “initial inquiry.” Earlier this year, emails uncovered by the watchdog group American Oversight found that Chao had personally met with business and political leaders from Kentucky at the behest of her husband’s office at least ten times since taking office.

Given the House Democrats’ track record so far on creating a veneer of accountability for the Trump administration, it’s not likely this will ever get to a place where Chao is actually threatened with impeachment. And if it does? Then it has to get through the Senate—which is, of course, run by none other than her husband, Mitch McConnell.

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In other words: the system works.

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