The Character Assassination of Elaine Chao

March 20, 2021National Review

The GOP cabinet official and wife of Mitch McConnell was essentially cleared, but she hardly received the Hunter Biden treatment.
National Review | By Andrew McCarthy, Contributing Editor | March 20, 2021

For reasons I can’t possibly imagine, the media that wouldn’t cover the Hunter Biden scandals before the election have continued to ignore them in the months since his father, their candidate, was elected president. But just to recap a bewildering coincidence, it seems that whenever the Obama administration made then-vice president Joe Biden its point person on foreign policy related to a notoriously corrupt country — say, China, Russia, or Ukraine — people and entities in those countries, for some hard-to-fathom reason, found it expedient to pay Hunter Biden millions of dollars, his patent lack of experience and stability notwithstanding.

With respect to China, to take just one example, Hunter was flown on Air Force Two during his father’s official government business, to do his lucrative personal business. This included a ten percent stake in a multibillion-dollar investment fund, backed by the Communist regime. Hunter separately went into business with a CCP-backed entity whose major players appear to have been clandestine agents of the Chinese regime (one of whom was memorably described by Hunter as “the f***ing spy chief of China”) — and Hunter even represented one of these men as an attorney, retained to find out why the U.S. government had him under investigation. The Bidens and the Beijing-backed conglomerate negotiated a $40 million liquefied-natural-gas deal. According to a participant’s statement, supported by documentary evidence, a slice of the pie was to go to Joe Biden himself — to be quietly held by Hunter or Joe’s brother, Jim. Though the LNG project never came to fruition, it is documented that, in addition to giving Hunter and Jim access to an expense account from which they drew about $100,000 for luxury purchases, the Beijing-backed conglomerate transferred nearly $5 million to a business controlled by Hunter, out of which about a quarter was funneled to a business controlled by Jim.

Meantime, on Ukraine, then-vice president Joe Biden used his influence to coerce the government in Kyiv to remove a prosecutor who said that he was conducting an investigation of a corrupt energy business that, unaccountably, had put Hunter on its board and paid him millions of dollars. Hunter and his business associates arranged access to Vice President Biden in Washington for their Chinese and Ukrainian associates. Hunter also got $3.5 million from the wife of a former mayor of Moscow, whose fortune (we’re talking Putin’s Russia here) is reportedly derived from corrupt construction contracts. Two of Hunter’s business partners have been convicted of federal fraud crimes, in a case where Hunter’s name was bandied about, though he was not charged. And Hunter’s laptop computers — the source of explosive documentary evidence that the media–Democrat complex tried to slough off as “Russian disinformation” — contain deeply compromising images.

I mention all of this because many of us haven’t forgotten about it, and won’t, even if Democrat-controlled Washington is determined to disappear it Soviet-style from history, while pursuing truly vital matters . . . such as the character assassination of Elaine Chao.

Ms. Chao is one of the most accomplished women in American life. She has been the longest-serving cabinet official since World War II, having for eight years served as President George W. Bush’s Labor secretary, as well as Transportation secretary for the last four years under President Trump. Prior to that, she chaired the Federal Maritime Commission and directed the Peace Corps. Between political stints, she was president and CEO of United Way of America, restoring the foundation’s standing after it had been mired in a fraud scandal. She had emigrated to America from Taiwan as an eight-year-old. Her family is an international success story, capped by her journey, through hard work, from childhood on Long Island to a degree from the Harvard Business School, and from a promising career in finance to a lifetime of public service. If identity politics is your thing, Chao smashed barriers virtually everywhere she went, on behalf of both women and Asian Americans.

Let’s face it: If Elaine Chao were a Democrat, they’d have named a galaxy after her by now.

But it is her fate to be a Republican. And despite being a Republican whose work on behalf of the nation has won bipartisan praise, she is a Republican who happens to be married to the most powerful Republican in Washington, Kentucky’s Mitch McConnell, now the minority leader in a 50–50 Senate that as every bit as deeply divided as 50–50 sounds.

Instead of laurels, then, Secretary Chao has a target on her back.

This week, I’ve spent hours of my life that I can never get back reading a lengthy report, along with related correspondence and press coverage, attendant to an energetic probe of Chao conducted at the insistence of Democrats by the Transportation Department’s inspector general. It had to have cost a king’s ransom. I don’t recommend it, particularly if you’ve spent anytime scrutinizing the appalling conduct and specter of compromise arising out of Hunter Biden’s lavish misadventures that Democrats and their media plus-ones are determined to ignore. It gets as tiresome to talk about our hypocritical, two-tiered accountability system as it must get to hear about it. Still, it is infuriating to compare concrete cases.

The bottom line on Chao is: They have nothing. Congressional Democrats, egged on by the mainstream press, endeavored to manufacture a scandal on the theory that Chao was running the Transportation Department as a favor bank, steering an inordinate amount of the goodies to Kentucky projects in order to promote Senator McConnell’s standing and election prospects.

To be more specific, the IG examined the Chao Transportation Department’s handling of four major grant-making vehicles (for aviation, highways, mass-transit, and railroads), and two additional discretionary funds controlled by the secretary, known as BUILD (Better Utilizing Investments to Leverage Development) and INFRA (Infrastructure for Rebuilding America). After an exhaustive investigation — exploiting such techniques as granular data analytics to assess hundreds of grant applications, interviews, the scrutinizing of Chao’s calendars to note who she was meeting with, when, and why, and so on — the IG concluded that “the review did not give rise to a factual basis for opening an investigation with respect to awarding federal grants benefiting Kentucky or Mr. Inman.” (The latter, Todd Inman, was Chao’s chief-of-staff, who had risibly been depicted out as the shadowy go-between for McConnell feeders to reach Chao’s trough.)

Unable to lay a glove on her over the integrity of the grant-making process, the investigation then turned to Secretary Chao’s financial scruples. Prior to serving in the Trump administration, Chao sat on the board of Vulcan Materials (VM), a large stone and asphalt producer that is the lawful recipient of federal funding. As typically happens in such engagements, Chao had vested holdings of deferred stock. In her confirmation process, she committed, consistent with federal law, to recuse herself from decision-making in any matters related to VM. She also said in her required ethics filing that she expected to get a cash pay-out on her stock by April 2018.

When April 2018 rolled around, Chao did not cash out; instead, her holdings were converted into common stock, which was subsequently cashed out, but not until June 2019. Aha, gotcha!

No, not exactly. These developments were completely immaterial. Ethics forms are detailed, and officials frequently don’t amend them every time some inconsequential change in their often-complex holdings arises. You can be sure members of Congress would resist such a compliance check applied to themselves. In Chao’s case, ethics officials were informed about the conversion to common stock shortly after it happened, and the ethics form was amended in 2019 before she cashed out. More significantly, the recusal remained in effect throughout. VM got no improper benefit from the relationship with Chao. As the IG concluded, “We did not find any evidence of a financial conflict of interest.”

Having struck out trying to portray Chao as abusing her position so she and McConnell could profit politically or financially, the investigation’s last gasp was to suggest that the Transportation Department was leveraged for the benefit of Foremost Group. That is a shipping company founded by the former secretary’s 93-year-old father, Dr. James S.C. Chao, a renowned Chinese-American businessman. Chao is devoted to her father. She is also called upon regularly to do public diplomacy in Asia, where her appearances in the company of her father and family members exhibit a cultural sensitivity that raises her standing, to America’s advantage.

Nevertheless, the inspector general found instances in which the lines between the professional and personal were blurred. In a planned 2017 diplomatic trip, there were proposals that Chao family members might attend not only social functions but also meetings involving government business, and that the secretary might make personal appearances that would arguably benefit Chao family charities while promoting a favorable biography written about her father. The trip, however, was scrapped (and most if not all of the anticipated problems might well have been nixed by Transportation ethics officers, anyway).

Moreover, Chao’s staffers were found to have done uncompensated personal work for the secretary, including promoting the biography of Dr. Chao, maintaining a list of honors awarded to him over the years, and editing his Wikipedia page.

The staffers, several of whom have worked for Chao for years, insisted to the IG that they did not feel in any way pressured to run errands for the boss. That, no doubt, is what congressional staffers would say if the well-known Capitol Hill iteration of this practice were subjected to IG probes. Indeed, anyone who has had to have a security detail due to sensitive government responsibilities (as I did for a few years in the Nineties) will relate that subordinates, who usually become your friends, often end up volunteering to do personal favors. That’s not because they expect career advancement; it’s because they realize it has become a hassle for you to do simple things, such as running to the dry cleaners, especially when there is really no such thing as off-hours. You can say that it shouldn’t happen, and it can undeniably become abusive with the wrong kind of boss. But in the greater scheme of things that anger us about government, I doubt many people are surprised or upset about it.

To read media accounts, you would think the Foremost Group struck gold with the Chao Transportation Department. Foremost, in fact, is a decades-old company worth hundreds of millions of dollars. Its commercial ships sail under flags registered in Hong Kong and Liberia. The Transportation Department’s Maritime Administration promotes U.S.-flagged shipping. These are separate activities. Chao has won bipartisan plaudits for aggressive promotion of U.S. shipping. That is not Foremost’s business.

Not surprisingly, then, the Transportation IG did not make a formal ethics finding against Secretary Chao. How could he? Palpably, this was not in the same stratosphere as Biden influence-peddling, let alone the Hillary Clinton State Department’s cozy relations with Clinton Foundation donors. Consistent with its procedures, the IG’s office referred its report and findings to the Justice Department, which promptly closed the matter because there was no suggestion of any criminal predication.

Congressional Democrats, led by Peter DeFazio of Oregon, the Transportation and Infrastructure Committee chairman, greeted this news by bleating that public officials “must know that they serve the public and not their family’s private commercial interests.” Funny, I wonder why no one asks him about the Biden family’s private commercial interests.

ANDREW C. MCCARTHY is a senior fellow at National Review Institute, an NR contributing editor, and author of BALL OF COLLUSION: THE PLOT TO RIG AN ELECTION AND DESTROY A PRESIDENCY.
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