Nearly every member of Donald Trump’s wealthy cabal of cabinet members has faced some sort of scandal in the president’s first term. Scott Pruitt, Tom Price, David Shulkin, Ryan Zinke, and Ben Carson have all dominated the news at one time or another with their corrupt spending habits. The press had a field day with Rex Tillerson and John Kelly when they reportedly called Trump a “moron” and an “idiot,” respectively. Progressive activists have raised hell, holding rallies against the confirmation of controversial nominees Jeff Sessions and Betsy DeVos.
But one Trump official has largely avoided the furor other cabinet members have faced—Secretary of Transportation Elaine Chao.
Chao is routinely portrayed by the media as the rare Trump appointee with “bipartisan respect,” despite the fact that Chao regularly engages in unscrupulous ethical behavior and supports hardline conservative economic policies. As Politico reported this past weekend, Chao, who has never held a news conference for D.C. beat reporters, has been appearing alongside her shipping magnate father, James Chao, in numerous interviews with Chinese and Chinese-American media outlets. Some of these interviews have seemingly taken place in the Department of Transportation, with DOT flags hung up in the background.
Because her father is the founder and honorary chairman of the international shipping company the Foremost Group—an industry that Elaine Chao has called a “family tradition”—this practice raises numerous ethical concerns about Chao using her public office for her family’s private gain (a tendency she apparently shares with her boss). As one international management expert told Politico, conveying that James Chao and the Foremost Group has ties with top-tier government officials is sure to “open up doors” in Chinese business circles, where connections are of utmost importance. While these joint appearances have been happening since her nomination, Politico’s report is the first to call her out for the practice.
There’s also the fact that the Chao family foundation has been funneling millions of dollars into offshore tax havens, as The Intercept reported in February. While the Transportation Department insisted that “Chao has no affiliation with the family shipping business,” The Intercept pointed out that Chao (along with husband and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell) was one of the biggest advocates for Trump’s tax bill that “shifted the corporate tax code to a territorial system, a move highly expected to reward firms that funnel earnings through offshore tax havens.” While this shady form of self-dealing and global elite corruption is pretty standard, as my colleague Alex Pareene has pointed out, that should make it no less a target of ire.
And it’s not as if Chao’s policy record should shield her from controversy, either. She is just as much of an acolyte to the privatization gods as other highly criticized cabinet officials like DeVos. Under Trump, Chao has pushed for an infrastructure bill that would offer cities and states $40 billion less than before and includes boosting so-called “public-private partnerships,” which, as David Dayen outlined at The Nation, “have been disasters for American cities.” The plan would also fully privatize major airports and Chao even supports privatizing air traffic control itself. As Secretary of Labor under George W. Bush, Chao was equally terrible, overseeing a systemic rise in wage-theft violations by employers against low-wage workers.
Before the recent dustup with her father, Chao’s singular controversial moment came after James Alex Fields Jr. rammed his car into the crowd at a white supremacist rally in Charlottesville, killing Heather Heyer. When Trump famously declared at a press conference that there were “some very fine people on both sides,” Chao stood next to him, smiling. After the conference, when asked about an unrelated public feud happening between McConnell and Trump, Chao said, “I stand by my man—both of them.”
After these remarks, a coalition of Asian-American organizations called on Chao to either speak up or resign. But other Asian-American groups, including the International Leadership Foundation and Asian Pacific Islander American Public Affairs, stood by Chao, writing in a statement that they “proudly support Secretary Chao because she has always supported us and, through the years, served as a role model to all communities of color both here and throughout the world.” The media quickly moved on as Chao’s remarks were (justifiably) overshadowed by Trump’s reaction.
So how has Chao been able to lay so low?
Some of it probably has to do with the fact that she’s a decidedly demure head of one of the least flashy—albeit crucial—departments. And unlike some of Trump’s other cabinet nominees, she also checks the “qualification” boxes, having spent decades within the Washington establishment making inroads with people in power (her husband, after all, is Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell). Chao coasted easily through her confirmation hearing, with Senate Democrats lauding her for the future “level-headed, good experience-based advice” she was sure to give to the Trump administration.
But much of it also has to do with a singular point of deflection that Chao has deployed throughout her entire career: selling herself as a hard-working immigrant who has achieved success in America. The statement her spokesperson provided to Politico pushing back against the allegations of ethical violations was a laughable defense of corruption-as-diversity:
There is nothing inappropriate with a Cabinet member appearing with her father or other family members. The secretary’s appearances are intended to share an inspirational story about immigrants from a minority community who have become successful in our country.
Chao was born in Taiwan, where her parents fled the Communist revolution in China. She moved to the United States in 1961, when she was eight years old. Her journey took 37 days on a cargo ship and she spoke no English when she got here. While it was undoubtedly a difficult transition, Chao likes to expound on the bootstrap mythology—that it was with hard work and good ethics that her family found success in America. She has said she knows the feeling of being an “outsider,” and in one of the problematic interviews with her father, Chao tells the New China Press: “We hope, when we talk about our own story, to offer hope and inspiration to other newcomers. And we say to them, we were just like you so many years ago, and if we can make it, you can as well.”
Of course, most immigrants will never reach the heights of the Chao family. James Chao reportedly gifted Elaine Chao and Mitch McConnell somewhere between $5 million and $25 million in 2008. Elaine’s sister, Angela Chao, sits on the board of directors at the Bank of China, a position she ascended to just a week after Trump’s victory. Elaine herself was an executive at Bank of America before she moved into public service and alternated between top cabinet positions and the conservative Heritage Foundation.
Yet despite becoming the first Asian-American woman to serve in a president’s cabinet (as Labor Secretary under Bush), Chao has worked her entire career to push a conservative agenda that cripples the welfare of low-wage, immigrant workers. Chao has argued that “some people have tried to make” the immigration debate “into a racial issue” when she believes that “the issue at stake is the issue of legality.” But Trump’s ascension to power, marked by the escalation of cruel and draconian immigration policies, lays bare the fact that enforcement of immigration law in America has always been built on racism—something that polite conservatives like Chao try to obfuscate.
Chao’s ascension is the true embodiment of the American dream, in that it consists of a heroic personal narrative being used as cover for corrupt self-dealing and indifference to the suffering caused by her cronies. Her self-positioning as a model minority ignores the structural and historical factors that enabled her to succeed, while flattening the racism that continues to destroy the lives of families of color in the country. These factors, of course, have all been built and sustained by the policies of the Republican administrations Chao has served.
The mainstream media has relished Chao’s story as a model for other immigrants. Last August, CNN’s Dana Bash profiled Chao as part of a series on the “Badass Women of Washington.” The conceit, born in the wake of Hillary Clinton’s loss, was to look at women who are “already breaking barriers in a man’s town.” In a piece titled, “One woman’s rise from immigrant roots to the presidential Cabinet,” Chao enjoyed a softball interview in which she again offered up her rags-to-riches story.
“The kids were mean to me,” Chao said when talking about how she didn’t speak English when she arrived. Bash affirmed, “Kids are mean, huh!” There were no questions about Chao’s policies or about her choice to join the administration of a man whose very election led to widespread bullying and abuse of immigrant and Latinx children in schools across the country.
The fact that Chao is able to serve under an administration that has dismantled DACA, terrorizes immigrants daily, and cozies up to white supremacists, while facing almost no popular or elite backlash, is the result of her own carefully cultivated image. When her time as Trump’s cabinet secretary ends, she’ll likely find herself comfortably welcomed back into polite society, with a job waiting at a major think tank or on a corporate board—another immigrant success story. Chao, after all, has profited off of the model minority stereotype for her entire career. It doesn’t look like that will end any time soon.