Elaine Chao is resigning as Transportation secretary, citing the troubling nature of President Donald Trump’s rally Wednesday and the chaos that it later spurred as rioters tore through the halls of the Capitol building.
With her resignation, effective Jan. 11, Chao becomes the first of what had been a rumored wave of Cabinet secretaries who were reportedly discussing stepping aside in protest.
Chao’s ties to Congress, especially the Senate, go deeper than most. Her husband is Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, she regularly attends Senate spouse luncheons and she calls many senators personal friends.
Calling the riot a “traumatic and entirely avoidable event,” Chao said it had “deeply troubled me in a way I simply cannot set aside.”
With her resignation, Chao closes out a tenure atop the Department of Transportation marked by a bruising critique of how her agency handled grounding Boeing’s 737 MAX planes as well as clashes over transit funding and the abandonment of Trump’s multitrillion-dollar infrastructure vision.
Chao was among the first Cabinet officials to be announced after Trump was elected, and is among the last of the original crop to leave. When she was selected, the pick was largely lauded by a Washington wary of whom Trump would appoint to his Cabinet; she was seen as a leader with experience and gravitas.
Averse to the Washington, D.C., press corps (though a darling of some Asian media early in her tenure) Chao did her best to stay out of the spotlight during her time in office — but the spotlight glared anyway when two 737 MAX planes operated by foreign airlines crashed, with numerous probes soon following.
She often said safety was the department’s number one priority, and innovation was a close second. Chao put out two versions of department guidance on driverless cars while maintaining a voluntary approach to compliance. The department also prioritized the integration of drones into the airspace under her leadership.
Of Chao’s handful of moments in the national spotlight as secretary, few involved transportation issues.
For instance, there was the summer of 2017, when Chao stood beside Trump in the lobby of Trump Tower, eager to tout a new executive order to speed infrastructure project delivery time, only to be overtaken by Trump’s extemporaneous comments defending white nationalists rallying in Charlottesville as “very fine people.” At the same press conference, when asked whose side she took in an ongoing feud between Trump and her husband, McConnell, Chao awkwardly answered: “I stand by my man — both of them.”
Chao’s selection was met mostly with relief among transportation industries and policymakers, considering her breadth of experience and that she carried considerably less ideological baggage than nominees such as Attorney General Jeff Sessions or Education Secretary Betsy DeVos. She was also a familiar, even friendly, quantity in the Senate — at her nomination hearing, senators from both parties sent their spouses’ regards and congratulations.
But she’s had more than a few terse exchanges during appearances on Capitol Hill, though mostly in the House. In March 2018, tensions over the Trump administration’s resistance to helping fund the bridge-and-tunnel project known as Gateway began to boil over in testy exchanges with lawmakers from New York and New Jersey during congressional hearings and closed-door meetings. She mostly stayed out of similarly tense and high-stakes disagreements between DOT and California’s high-speed rail authority, at least in public.
The antipathy for Gateway and California high-speed rail are emblematic of the sharp turn DOT took under Chao in favor of rural areas, reshuffling priorities away from urban transit and pedestrian projects and toward rural highway expansion. Though both she and Trump are New Yorkers, more than two-thirds of a key discretionary grant program is now directed toward rural areas.
Chao has had to be the torchbearer not just for the administration’s unpopular decisions but also an ever-shifting slate of proposed budget cuts to her own department. She also defended the administration’s short-lived position in favor of spinning the air traffic control system off from the FAA, saying the idea was “very fair” and equitable.
And after two 737 MAX jets crashed, Chao took a backseat, allowing the administrator of the FAA to decide on whether to ground the planes (even though Trump himself ultimately ordered the grounding, stepping in front of the FAA in the process) and to be the face of the administration’s response to ongoing probes.
At the odd times when Chao has drawn attention to herself, it has sometimes backfired, like when Chao announced on a press call about positive train control that she “would like some credit” for PTC implementation, claiming “nothing happened on this until we came into office.” Former FRA Administrator Sarah Feinberg under President Barack Obama called the claim “literally the biggest pile of BS I’ve ever encountered.”
Chao has embraced technological innovation, even creating a new council to vet permit applications for transportation innovations that don’t fit neatly into one modal silo, like hyperloop and the somewhat more modest “loop” project between Washington, D.C., and Baltimore. She also ultimately oversaw the long-delayed rulemaking for remote drone identification and tracking, which is seen as the prerequisite for all manner of expanded drone operations. And in the absence of legislation forcing DOT’s hand, Chao has chosen not to issue any requirements for the developers of autonomous vehicles to self-certify the vehicles’ safety.
Her tenure at DOT was her second stint as Cabinet secretary, having served as President George W. Bush’s secretary of Labor for his entire eight years in office, earning the distinction of being one of just two Cabinet-level officials to last the entire duration of the Bush administration. (The other was drug czar John Walters.)
Chao’s nomination to the post was announced just three weeks after Trump’s election, and she was among the first Cabinet officials to be confirmed by the full Senate on Jan. 31, 2017. A sharp contrast from many of Trump’s other nominees, whose nominations were bitterly partisan affairs, Chao was confirmed by a vote of 93-6 on the Senate floor after being dispatched out of committee by a simple voice vote.