“ My life goal is to be as calm under absurd pressure as Elaine Chao,” New York Magazine business columnist Josh Barro wrote on Twitter in August 2017.
“Elaine Chao is so unflappable, she’s basically the personification of the this-is-fine cartoon,” Barro opined in another tweet, referencing a popular meme in which a behatted, anthropomorphic dog calmly reassures himself that everything is fine while seated in a coffee shop that is engulfed in flames.
Barro’s praise of Chao has turned out to be prescient. Last June, the transportation secretary enjoyed brief Internet fame after a video of protesters accosting her and her husband, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., leaving an event at Georgetown University went viral. “ You leave my husband alone!” declares the 65-year-old Chao matter-of-factly, between smiles, to the encroaching, all-male group.
While President Trump’s Cabinet has seen its share of turnover, controversy, and unconventional, outside-the-Beltway personalities, Chao is a positive outlier in all categories. A consummate Washington veteran, she has served in high-level positions in every Republican administration since President Ronald Reagan. She and McConnell have been among the capital’s most influential couples for decades. But while the majority leader gets the lion’s share of press, Chao has quietly developed an equally impressive reputation as a political operator.
As Trump’s secretary of transportation, this skill set has been all the more important. America’s crumbling transportation infrastructure was a big issue for Trump throughout the 2016 presidential election campaign, one that helped him connect with disillusioned voters, particularly rural ones, who felt forgotten by Washington elites of both parties. Campaign promises are easier than government action, and Trump’s eagerly awaited infrastructure plan was dead-on-arrival in Congress. Each White House attempt to hold an “ Infrastructure Week” has been consumed by fresh controversy or bogged down in Democratic demands.
But Chao steadily continues to carry out important aspects of the president’s agenda from the Department of Transportation: cutting unnecessary costs and regulations faster than any other department, speeding up infrastructure permit processes while reining in bureaucratic meddling, and encouraging private-sector investment in infrastructure and innovative technologies. Chao brings to the job a conservative governing philosophy, balancing deference toward federalism and individual freedom with federal responsibilities around public investment and prudential reform.
I first sat down with Chao almost 12 years ago, when she was labor secretary under President George W. Bush. She was the only Cabinet secretary to serve for both of his full terms. She rarely grants interviews while in office but was generous with her time; both interviews I had with her lasted more than an hour. My main impression was that she hadn’t changed a bit. She hit the ground running at both departments, made lightning progress implementing each administration’s agenda, and always made sure to get her message across with clarity and certitude.
Trump offered Chao a position in the administration almost immediately after his election. She was confirmed by a vote of 93 to 6. “There was one abstention: my husband,” she laughed. As the Senate is generally a congenial body, McConnell took one of the “nay” votes personally — that cast by his counterpart, Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y.
Although demure by nature, Chao earned her reputation as a “tiger wife” for a reason, as was clear from her unblinking defense of her husband in the video captured from Georgetown. Since that event last June, there have been at least three more incidents involving protesters confronting either McConnell or the couple: Two were in Kentucky, and one was outside their Washington home. In July 2018, “Abolish ICE” protesters harangued an unfazed McConnell as he was leaving a restaurant in Kentucky. “I see what they did here,” the majority leader’s “Team Mitch” campaign Twitter account posted in response to the incident. “They waited until Elaine wasn’t around.”
Chao only provides glimpses into their personal life, but they’re given with an authentic, low-key vibe. She and McConnell, who is 76, got married 25 years ago on Reagan’s birthday. “We are very grounded in Kentucky, and whenever we go home … we become much more mellow. It’s very good for us,” she said.
She refers to the Senate majority leader as her “low-maintenance husband.” He’s a very “thoughtful” and “considerate person to live with,” offering that he does his own laundry and that she “lets him cook.”
When I asked if this was her way of saying she’s actually the better cook but lets him think otherwise, she clarified: “He’s actually a good cook, and he enjoys it. He thinks it’s relaxing.” Even though they both have demanding schedules and “haven’t had too many of those moments” to sample chef McConnell’s gourmet meals, they “make a priority to spend time with one another.”
While McConnell returns home to Kentucky every weekend, Chao splits her weekends between their home in Louisville and in New York with her 91-year-old father and her five sisters.
Chao and three of her sisters attended Harvard Business School, the only family with four female siblings to attend the business school in its history. Her father settled in America three years before she, her mother, and siblings arrived from Taiwan. She was eight and didn’t know a word of English.
The secretary caught me eyeing her black rubber bracelet as I tried to read the writing on it. Philippians 4:13: “I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me.” She explained, “Somebody at church gave it to me; it was the sweetest thing.” McConnell got one as well. “People come up to us and they tell us that they pray for us, and we so welcome that and are comforted by that.”
They both attend Southeast Christian Church, a mega-church in Louisville. They usually go to a Saturday evening service, because McConnell “has to watch the Sunday morning talk shows. That’s his homework,” she joked.
Chao has held many titles in her professional life, but she seems most at home at Transportation, where she commands 55,000 employees. This is her third time working in the department. She served as deputy maritime administrator in 1986 and deputy secretary in 1989. Most insiders thought she’d be given the Transportation post instead of Labor in 2001. At Labor, she became the first Asian-American woman to hold a Cabinet position and the first Kentuckian to serve as a Cabinet secretary since World War II.
Even as a White House fellow during the Reagan administration in 1983, Chao focused on transportation in the Office of Policy Development, where she first met Elizabeth Dole. When Dole became Secretary of Transportation, she recruited Chao, who was then a banker with Citicorp involved in asset sales and ship financing.
Chao has also served as chairwoman of the Federal Maritime Commission, director of the Peace Corps, and president and CEO of United Way. She has been a distinguished fellow at the Heritage Foundation and the Hudson Institute during various stints outside government during Democratic administrations.
Chao is both policy-oriented and principle-driven, wonky without being esoteric. Her preferred policies align with her conservative convictions. She sees a direct correlation between policies she is tasked with implementing and how they affect people’s lives.
She is a firm proponent of conservative participation in government, and recognizes talent and nurtures it as a way of passing along a legacy. “I believe very much in public service, and I think that conservatives need to come into the government, because if we do not, and we do not lead and share our conservative values, we cede the playing ground to others who do not agree with us,” she told me. “So we have a responsibility to step up, to come into the government, and to help the president lead the country in a right-of-center approach.”
“Personnel is policy,” Ronald Reagan always said, and it was one of the “most important lessons” she learned as a young staffer in his administration. Her roster of hires is impressive. Deputy Secretary Jeffrey Rosen served as former general counsel at Transportation under President George W. Bush as well as in his Office of Management and Budget. Under Secretary Derek Kan was most recently general manager for the ride-sharing service Lyft and brought with him extensive ties to Silicon Valley. Steven Bradbury, the department’s general counsel, is another Bush alum who was the head of the Office of Legal Counsel at the Department of Justice and recently on the short list to replace outgoing Attorney General Jeff Sessions.
When I asked about the biggest change she’s seen since her last stint at Transportation, Chao instantly identified mission creep. “The government’s gotten bigger, and the activities of the department have also increased,” she stated. “And then, of course, regulations have also increased. So the role of the government has become bigger, not just at the Department of Transportation, but everywhere. As conservatives, we want to be careful and wise, prudent stewards of taxpayers’ dollars. We want to make sure that we preserve freedom for Americans.”
Chao sees federalism as part of the solution. She wants to make sure that we’re not “over-regulating” but are instead “empowering” state and local governments. In part, this means eschewing the temptations of a one-size-fits-all approach. “We don’t dictate,” she told me.
But, in Chao’s mind, it also means state governments should contribute a sizable portion of funding for infrastructure projects, as well as seek out private investment.
A perfect example is the Gateway Project in New York and New Jersey, a $30 billion slate of improvements including a new rail tunnel replacing the rapidly deteriorating tunnel that connects the two states under the Hudson River.
New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo met Trump and Chao at the White House in November, hoping to start with the $13 billion tunnel. While former President Barack Obama had promised federal money to underwrite half the cost, the Trump administration scrapped that proposal in December 2017 and made no more guarantees. “They can’t jump ahead of everybody else,” Chao told me. “There’s not enough [federal] money to fuel the entire project,” which involves “two of the wealthiest states in our country.”
Streamlining agency policies and regulations is high on Chao’s agenda. “In trying to put together this infrastructure initiative, one of the major concerns that was expressed by the public, by the builders, by users of our transportation system, is the amount of time it takes to build infrastructure.”
The One Federal Decision framework, announced in August 2017 and signed by various agencies in a memorandum of understanding in April 2018, puts one department in charge of a given infrastructure project, supervising other departments on permitting and reviews, such as those on environmental impact. The department in charge varies based on which will deal the most with the project, whether it relates to transportation, energy, water, broadband Internet, and so on.
“What we found,” Chao explained, “is the longer it takes for permitting to occur to allow construction to begin, we slow down the project unnecessarily.”
The process can be streamlined in commonsense ways that cut waste without compromising safety or the environment, she said. Different agencies conduct related surveys on different time frames, with little information sharing. She also pointed out that surveys or permits from unrelated agencies are not worked on simultaneously but could be. Trump wants federal permitting to take just two years, which would be little more than half the time it takes now and would, said Chao, be “quite an improvement.”
Chao is trimming fat elsewhere. Transportation boasts the best deregulation numbers and cost-cutting of any agency, eliminating 23 regulations for every new one implemented; the president’s goal is a 2-to-1 ratio. This deregulation saved about $1.2 billion in 2018.
Beyond deregulation and cost-cutting, Chao has to look ahead to new and emerging technologies, such as driverless vehicles and drones.
Chao said her department recognizes the delicate balance between safety, security, and privacy without compromising or hampering innovation, “a hallmark of what America is all about.” The “increasing patchwork of state regulations” on driverless cars prompted her department to issue new guidance in September 2017. “We’re going to be tech-neutral,” she told me. “We will not decide which technology is best.”
From the start, Chao warned Silicon Valley that self-driving vehicles presented a challenge. “The greatest constraint to their growth will be consumer acceptance,” she said. A 2017 study found that 74 percent of the public are anxious about riding in a self-driving car.
The department is focused on a transition period that will be the most revolutionary since horses and buggies shared the roads with Ford Model Ts. “I think the changes will come very quickly,” said Chao, “but it will come gradually. Those two seem like contradictory statements, but we’re seeing already a … gradual integration of emerging technologies into our cars, even now” with automated parallel parking and other features.
Since “94 percent of accidents occur because of human error,” Chao welcomes the safety benefits of autonomous vehicles, as well as those for people with disabilities and the elderly.
Security is a top concern, however. “If the software system within a car or a drone is hacked, it can become a weaponized entity,” something she said wouldn’t have been thought of by government before the 9/11 terrorist attacks.
Chao and her department see economic and entrepreneurial benefits of emerging technologies. Just last week, her department issued a new proposed rule that would allow drones to fly overnight over populated areas without a waiver.
Chao has answered to four Republican presidents, and I asked her how their leadership styles compared. “Every president is different, and the administration reflects their personalities and their experiences. This president is very focused on job creation,” she said.
Chao works with little fanfare. Out of the limelight, she rolls out initiatives and projects that will affect everyone for generations to come. As we see life-altering technologies advancing toward us, one might wish we’d all be as calm about it as her.