U.S. Senate Republican Leader Sen. Mitch McConnell (R-KY) and his wife Elaine Chao arrive for a victory celebration following the early results of the state Republican primary on May 20, 2014 in Louisville, Kentucky.
Win McNamee/Getty

Elaine Chao, Trump’s Transportation Sec, faces new ethics questions

Updated

Earlier this summer, Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao faced accusations that she made special arrangements to benefit projects in Kentucky – where her husband, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), is the senior senator. Politico reported in June that Chao even hired one of her husband’s former campaign aides, who soon after took on a unique role in the cabinet agency: he oversaw projects that would benefit Chao’s husband’s home state ahead of his re-election campaign.

Yesterday, Politico advanced the story in ways that don’t do the cabinet secretary any favors.

In her first 14 months as Transportation secretary, Elaine Chao met with officials from Kentucky, which her husband, Mitch McConnell, represents in the Senate, vastly more often than those from any other state.

In all, 25 percent of Chao’s scheduled meetings with local officials from any state from January 2017 to March 2018 were with Kentuckians, who make up about only 1.3 percent of the U.S. population. The next closest were Indiana and Georgia, with 6 percent of meetings each, according to Chao’s calendar records, the only ones that have been made public.

At least five of Chao’s 18 meetings with Kentuckians were requested in emails from McConnell staffers, who alerted Chao’s staffers which of the officials were “friends” or “loyal supporters,” according to records obtained under the Freedom of Information Act.

While the secretary’s office denies any wrongdoing, I’m trying to think of an innocent explanation for why officials from her husband’s state have received special access that officials from other states have not. Nothing is coming to mind.

Of course, these questions are unrelated to separate reporting alleging that the Republican cabinet secretary held onto stock in a transportation company after Chao was supposed to have divested.

And that matter is unrelated to the House Oversight Committee investigation into Chao’s curious habit of taking steps that appear designed to assist her father’s family shipping business.

How that’s swamp-draining effort working out?

As we recently discussed, the number of Trump administration cabinet secretaries facing controversies like these keeps growing. We recently learned, for example, that David Bernhardt, a former corporate lobbyist for the oil industry, became the subject of an ethics investigation immediately after becoming the nation’s new Interior secretary. Federal prosecutors have also presented evidence to a grand jury on Ryan Zinke, Bernhardt’s predecessor.

That news arrived around the same time that we learned new details about Alex Acosta, Trump’s former Labor secretary, who allegedly broke the law while shielding a politically connected sex trafficker. Acosta was later forced to resign.

Last year, NBC News published a list of Trump administration figures accused of crossing ethical and/or legal lines, and the list wasn’t at all short. It included familiar controversies involving former EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt, former HHS Secretary Tom Price, former regulatory adviser Carl Icahn, HUD Secretary Ben Carson, former CDC Director Brenda Fitzgerald, and White House counselor Kellyanne Conway.

That wasn’t an exhaustive tally. As we discussed at the time, there have been related controversies surrounding Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin and former VA Secretary David Shulkin. While we’re at it, let’s also not overlook controversies surrounding Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross, who seems to get more controversial all the time, and former FEMA Director Brock Long. Even acting Defense Secretary Patrick Shanahan faced an ethics probe.

In June, Donald Trump declared with pride, “There are those that say we have one of the finest cabinets.” No one has ever made such an assessment. No one ever should.

Update: A spokesperson with the U.S. Department of Transportation reached out with a statement that read: “In nearly three years transportation blogger Tanya Snyder has written more misleading articles focused on the Secretary’s calendar than on infrastructure or the safety technology that is the future of transportation- and that’s sad. Not only is the basic math inaccurate, it’s based on a few outdated and incomplete calendars provided by dark money, partisan political groups. The story also ignores the countless hours the Department puts in each day to revitalize American infrastructure while citing a group that attacks the Department weekly as a supposedly objective source.

“Finding nothing substantive in the several previous rounds of reporting on this same topic, the reporter continually links to old, biased stories to drive website revenue. Buried deep in these stories are quotes from Senate Democratic sources saying ‘DOT will talk to anyone.’ No new information is presented in these repetitive attacks on the work of the Department, and our work will continue regardless.”