Thursday, Transportation Secretary — and wife to Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnel — Elaine Chao became the first Trump cabinet member to resign following Wednesday’s storming of the capital by Trump supporters seeking justice for what they believed to be a fraudulent election. Her resignation comes after years of speculation that Chao’s holding of the position was an active benefit to the Chinese economy.
Chao announced her resignation via Twitter, saying she was “deeply troubled” by the event that she called “entirely avoidable.” She reassured the public, however, that she would help her successor, Pete Buttigieg, with his transition into the position
“Yesterday, our country experienced a traumatic and entirely avoidable event as supporters of the President stormed the Capitol building following a rally he addressed,” read Chao’s statement. “As I’m sure is the case with many of you, it has deeply troubled me in a way that I simply cannot set aside.”
It has been the honor of a lifetime to serve the U.S. Department of Transportation. pic.twitter.com/rFxPsBoh6t
— Sec. Elaine Chao (@SecElaineChao) January 7, 2021
“I am tremendously proud of the many accomplishments we were able to achieve together for our country and I will never forget the commitment you have for this Department and the United States of America. I am hopeful that many of you will carry forward our vision to improve the lives of Americans through this Department and beyond.”
“Today, I am announcing my resignation as U. S. Secretary of Transportation, to take effect on Monday, January 11, 2020. We will help my announced successor Mayor Pete Buttigieg, with taking on the responsibility of running this wonderful department.”
During her time in the position, Chao came under scrutiny for her bizarre efforts to involve members of her family — which has deep ties to the Chinese government and Chinese business — in government meetings. A trip Chao had planned to China was called off after questions were raised about the ethics of her requests, including for federal government coordination of travel for a family member
“She had these relatives who were fairly wealthy and connected to the shipping industry,” said a State Department official involved in the matter told the New York Times. “Their business interests were potentially affected by meetings.”
Chao’s father, James Chao, is the founder of Foremost Group, an American shipping company involved in Chinese business. Some ethics experts saw this as a clear issue, given Chao’s position, and argued that her actions as head of the DOT could be perceived as directly benefiting her father’s business — such as giving Chinese-language interviews alongside her father, in front of the DOT emblem.
“She needs to be careful when she appears that, say, the seal of the Department of Transportation doesn’t appear on the screen,” Washington University School of Law government and legal ethics expert Kathleen Clark told Politico at the time.
Although it is an American company, Foremost is certainly intertwined with the Chinese state, having reportedly received millions of dollars in loan commitments from a Chinese government bank and doing routine business with state-funded organizations.
Chao has denied that the company is China-focused, and instead characterized it as simply an “international” company.
“We are an international shipping company, and I’m an American,” she said, adding, “I don’t think that, if I didn’t have a Chinese face, there would be any of this focus on China.”
McConnell’s political career has also been bolstered by the Chao family, who reportedly gave the couple between $5 and $25 million in 2008. The family has also reportedly given a collective $1 million+ to McConnel’s campaigns and supporting PACs.