She is the ultimate Washington insider: a senior appointee in the past three Republican administrations, the only member of President Trump’s Cabinet to have served in a Cabinet before, the CEO credited with rescuing the United Way from financial scandal. And as the spouse of Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, half of D.C.’s top power couple.
Despite all that, Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao says she still sometimes feels like the outsider she once was, the 8-year-old girl who arrived in the United States on a freight ship from Taiwan not knowing a word of English.
Indeed, that perspective may have made it easier for her to connect with the most outsider of American presidents. In some ways an unlikely pair — they had never met until he interviewed her at Trump Tower four months ago about a Cabinet post — she has spent hours by Trump’s side during his trips to Michigan and Kentucky over the past week or so. She will be at the center of the administration’s $1 trillion infrastructure initiative she says is likely to be unveiled this fall.
“He obviously has touched a chord with the American people, many of whom did not feel comfortable saying that they were for him as president, but as we saw in the election there were many, many people who were for him,” she said in an interview with Capital Download, USA TODAY’s video newsmaker series. “I thought that he had tapped into something, a strain of anxiety, of fear, of vulnerability that somehow nobody else did.”
She thinks that anxiety may have less to do with the economic impact of trade than about the crush of new technologies, adding that Silicon Valley has a responsibility to try to ameliorate those qualms. In her new job, she’ll have a say in federal regulation of some of those new developments, among them the advent of self-driving cars and the expanding use of drones.
“For a lot of people, the rapid pace of technology is making them feel alienated and unconnected to other people, which is why these communities on-line are just thriving,” she says. Her message to the tech industry: “You take it as second nature, but for much of what you do, people do not understand.”
That’s not helpful to their corporate interests or the national interest, she says. “I want to challenge them to help the rest of our country understand this new phase of technology that they love. They’re on the cutting edge, but we’re just making a lot of the people, the rest of the country, very anxious.”
‘Being on the outside’
Chao understands what it is to feel anxious and vulnerable.
Her parents fled to Taiwan from Shanghai after Communists won control of China in 1949. Her father immigrated to the United States nine years later, leaving behind his wife and three young daughters until he could get a foothold in the new land.
“It took him three years before he could bring my mother and me and my two sisters,” Chao recalls. “We lived in a one-bedroom apartment in Queens. N.Y. I didn’t get my citizenship until I was 19 years old. I didn’t speak English. None of us did, except for my father. And it was very hard in the beginning. I remember how vulnerable our community felt at the time, and I think those lessons, those experiences of being on the outside” stuck with her.
“At ninth grade, I had to stay at school for lunch, and I didn’t know how to use a fork and knife,” she says. “Nobody ever taught me. We used chopsticks.” Popular music and culture were a mystery to her; her time was consumed with doing schoolwork and helping at home with her five younger sisters. Her father would scramble to find people who could help broaden her horizons — an alumnus to talk about Harvard, where she ended up receiving an MBA, or someone had experience working at a big bank. Her first job was at Citicorp.
(In January, James Chao, now 90 years old and living in New York’s Westchester County, beamed as he held a family Bible when Vice President Pence swore in his daughter to her second stint in a president’s Cabinet.)
Is her groundbreaking role as a woman over the years why she still sometimes feels like an outsider?
“If you were going to go down that path, it could also be because I’m Asian American,” she replies. “We all have our experiences, which is why I’m really into mentoring young people, especially women, Asian-Americans, Hispanic-Americans — you know, people who are not mainstream America. Because I understand and I remember how hard it was.”
She has discussed her family’s immigrant experience with President Trump, whose hard-line policies and rhetoric on immigration have exacerbated fears within some foreign-born communities about how welcome they should feel in the United States.
“I hope not and I don’t think he wants that either,” Chao says, noting the rise and fall of anti-immigrant feeling in the United States over time, including at the turn of the 20th century. She says the national-security briefings she’s received as a member of the Cabinet underscore the need for tougher policies at this moment.
“There are bad people coming across the borders — I’m not saying everybody, but there are bad people coming across and they want to do us harm,” she says. “We’re talking about, how do we protect the borders, protect our people, and yet still try to absorb people who want to be Americans?”
A view of Nats Park
In her first interview since being named to Trump’s Cabinet, Chao sits in her small private study, photos of her nephews and nieces on the small table beside her and more pictures of her close-knit family scattered elsewhere. Her larger, formal office next door features a spectacular view of the Anacostia River and Nationals Park.
Chao, who turns 64 on Sunday, has seen a string of presidents up close. She was a White House fellow during President Reagan’s administration. President George H.W. Bush appointed her deputy secretary of Transportation and then director of the Peace Corps. President George W. Bush nominated her as secretary of Labor, and she was the only Cabinet member to serve throughout his eight-year tenure.
“I have a lot of respect for Elaine Chao,” Bush told USA TODAY. “Secretary Chao is highly competent and understands how Washington functions. I relied on her throughout my entire administration, and she served our country well.”
Each president has had his own distinct priorities and preferences on how to operate, Chao says, saying Trump’s signature is his accessibility.
“People walk in and out of the Oval Office and he has a great sense of curiosity,” she says. “He wants to learn from everybody, so for example if he wants to learn something, he may not go to staff to do a memo, but he’ll call somebody or he’ll talk to somebody he’ll run into on a daily basis, although that circle we all understand is a bit smaller nowadays. But when he’s down in Florida, he’s asking people, What do you think? How are we doing? What do you think about this? He’s a very accessible person, always learning with a very populist touch.”
Trump remains committed to his campaign promise of a 10-year, $1 trillion infrastructure initiative, she says, once legislative battles over repealing and replacing the Affordable Care Act and overhauling the tax code are done. While the infrastructure bill has the potential to unite the White House and congressional Democrats, the conflict is likely to come over how to pay for it.
Democrats support federal spending while Trump has endorsed public-private partnerships. Chao says the administration’s plan will include investments from pension funds and private equity firms, and will look at easing “bureaucratic hurdles” that slow projects and make them more expensive.
New federal money for the initiative wasn’t included in the administration’s budget released this month. Indeed, the Transportation budget took a 13% cut.
That was “a message document,” Chao says. “Throughout the whole government, the administration wanted to give a message that things were not going to be done as usual and that there would be different priorities.” That said, she said “a lot” of the proposed Transportation cuts would be restored, albeit sometimes to different programs.
Meet Mitch McConnell
Speaking of odd couples, there is Chao and McConnell, who celebrated their 24th anniversary last month. She is lively and engaging; he is famously taciturn and sometimes impenetrable.
But the Senate majority leader visibly brightened when Chao unexpectedly dropped by an interview with Capital Download last year at University of Louisville, his alma mater. The archives there feature her career as well as his. During a tour, McConnell pointed with pride not only at his political memorabilia dating back to high school elections but also to her life story and her family’s journey.
She describes him in ways that colleagues of the Kentucky senator may not recognize.
“He’s such a dear,” she says, calling him “my low-maintenance husband.” “He does his own laundry. He cooks. He sometimes does my laundry.”
Mitch McConnell does your laundry? “Yes, he does,” she replies. “And he folds them, too.”
When they’re home at night, what do the Senate majority leader and the secretary of Transportation talk about?
“Who’s taking out the garbage,” she says.