New Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao is sworn  as her father, James S.C. Chao, holds a bible during a ceremony at the White House in Washington, January 31, 2017. Photo: Reuters/Carlos Barria
New Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao is sworn as her father, James S.C. Chao, holds a bible during a ceremony at the White House in Washington, January 31, 2017. Photo: Reuters/Carlos Barria

US President Donald Trump has chosen an ambitious overachiever in overdrive in picking Elaine Chao as his transport secretary and the US Senate seemed to have no problem with that in confirming her nomination on Tuesday.

She began her public career as a White House Fellow during the Reagan administration, later to serve as deputy secretary of transportation under George H.W. Bush and then George W. Bush’s labor secretary. The latter job made her the first woman of Asian descent to be appointed to a US presidential cabinet.

Her latest appointment does raise some interesting questions about the Trump administration’s future relations with China.

Elsewhere, 63-year-old Chao headed uber charity United Way, was a director of the Peace Corps and had stints at Bank of America and Citicorp.  She also happens to be the wife of Republican Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell. Not bad for an immigrant.

“In appointing Elaine, Trump got a four-fer. She’s female, she’s Asian, she’s connected to Mitch McConnell and she’s been a cabinet secretary before. From that point of view, she’s highly credible. It seems like a smart appointment,” said a Chinese American business leader who knows Chao and requested anonymity to discuss the matter.

The less flattering view is that in her climb to the top, Chao distanced herself from her ethnic heritage as the daughter of poor Taiwanese immigrants and then her marriage opened doors.

“Everybody knows that she was appointed because she’s McConnell’s wife and not because Trump has any proclivities towards Asians,” said an Asian American political leader, who also requested anonymity.

Hard work

Chao’s office dismissed this in an e-mail response to questions, saying “It is because of her hard work that she is now one of the most qualified cabinet secretaries in history.”  This is reflected in the Senate showing overwhelming bipartisan support by voting 93-6 in favor of her confirmation, the e-mail said. 

Power marriages and liaisons are not new in Washington. Elizabeth Dole, like Chao, famously served as US Secretary of Transportation in the 1980s at the same time that her husband, Republican Sen. Robert Dole, served as Senate Majority Leader.

The Doles, however, inhabited a far more bipartisan Washington of three decades ago.  Chao and her husband Mitch McConnell are entering an unprecedentedly divided and volatile new world of American politics under Trump where close ties, personal behavior, power marriages and alleged conflicts of interest, have been thrust into the public eye as never before.

Whatever the motives behind her appointment, Chao did zip through her Senate confirmation hearings and now finds herself at the helm of a federal agency that will play a pivotal role in honoring Trump’s campaign pledge to “Make America Great Again.”

The president has proposed a trillion-dollar infrastructure renewal program that entails a massive overhaul of moldering US highway, bridge, and rail systems. Chao, as transport secretary, will have a lot to do with steering it through.

“The challenges Secretary Chao inherits are monumental,” said Edward Wytkind, president of the Transportation Trades Department, AFL-CIO, in a statement that welcomed Chao’s appointment.

“Decades of wrongheaded austerity policies and partisan gridlock in Washington have left this country with a badly deteriorated transportation system and infrastructure that is harming American competitiveness and stifling job creation,” said Wytkind, whose group represents 32 unions.

That was also a message Chao gave at her confirmation hearing, warning that “aging infrastructure, growing congestion … and a failure to keep pace with emerging technologies” is jeopardizing US productivity and growth. She’s a fan of autonomous vehicles and drones and favors harnessing private investment for public works.

There are “trillions in capital that equity firms, pension funds and endowments can invest,” she said during confirmation hearings.

China role?

But Trump’s steel-and-asphalt vision faces huge financing, technology and other challenges. Could this open the door to China being a part of the US renovation program?

“One interesting play would be for Elaine to go to China and make a deal to come and help (with Trump’s infrastructure program),” said the business leader.

The chances of such an initiative are uncertain given Trump’s current adversarial stance toward Beijing, but Trump could make it domestically palatable by saying China will only help to manage and finance the projects, while jobs created will go to Americans, the business leader said.

Some analysts note that the technology and expertise to build systems like high-speed trains now lies in nations like China, Japan and Germany. Trump would be hard-pressed to find US makers who can fit the bill.

Immigrant family

Chao was born in Taiwan and is the oldest of six daughters. Her official biography says she arrived in the US aboard a cargo ship as an eight year old with a younger sister and a pregnant mom. The family settled in Queens, N.Y. Her father, James S.C. Chao, eventually became a successful shipping magnate.

Like many Asian Americans, her parents stressed the importance of education. Chao, who didn’t speak a word of English when she landed in the US, went on to graduate from Mount Holyoke College with a degree in economics. She later earned an MBA from Harvard Business School.

Meantime, Chao tended to keep her ethnicity separate from her career as a public servant, said the business leader. “She never went out of her way to identify herself as an Asian American,” he said.

Chao adopted the time-honored strategy of the ambitious to socialize with the rich and powerful to move up the ladder, along with her credentials as a graduate of Harvard Business School.  The business leader familiar with Chao’s family says her father told each of his six daughters: “Whatever you do — marry well.”

They seem to have taken this advice onboard.  Chao’s youngest sister Angela married Bruce Wasserstein , the founder of Wall Street investment bank, Wasserstein Perella & Co., in 2009. It was Wasserstein’s fourth marriage. He died the same year.

McConnell, a Republican senator from Kentucky, married Chao after divorcing his wife in 1993.

Kissinger line

Back to the question of will Trump’s roadmap to rebuild US infrastructure lead to deals with China?

The business leader says Jared Kushner, Trump’s son-in-law and White House adviser, has already been told by the president to hew to Henry Kissinger’s globalist approach in dealings with Beijing.

Kushner has been skewered in the US press for meeting executives of China’s Anbang Insurance Group, the owners the New York’s Waldorf-Astoria Hotel, to discuss private real estate development schemes.

Kissinger, who served as secretary of state under presidents Nixon and Ford, has met repeatedly to discuss foreign policy with Trump since the election. The 1970s architect of normalizing US-China relations also met with Chinese President Xi Jinping in early December in what was characterized as shuttle diplomacy to ease growing bilateral tensions.

So with Chao at the wheel, Chinese (or Japanese or German) participation in Trump’s infrastructure dreams is an issue to watch.

Along with how Trump would sell the idea that to“Make America Great Again” he needed to bring in non-Americans, not least perhaps from Beijing.

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