Political news often runs the emotional gamut from inspiring to depressing. I was immediately reminded of this with the news that President-elect Donald Trump selected Elaine Chao for Transportation secretary.
Chao’s biography is inspirational and aspirational. The first Asian-American woman to serve in a Cabinet position as George W. Bush’s Labor secretary, Chao is an immigrant from Taiwan (her parents relocated there during the Chinese Civil War) who showed up to her third-grade class not knowing a word of English. She’s also the wife of Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell. (This part is slightly less romantic; his assistant called her assistant to arrange a date.)
Her family’s story is similar to that of many other immigrants; through hard work, a focus on education, and assimilation, they pursued the American dream. And it wasn’t always easy. One story, featured in McConnell’s memoir “The Long Game,” struck me as both humorous and heartwarming.
McConnell recounts a tale of a time when Chao’s family first moved to America, and they heard a knock on the door of their New York apartment.
“Not expecting anyone, and not knowing any of their neighbors, Elaine’s mother ignored it, thinking someone had made a mistake. But then there was another knock, followed by loud chants.” Chao’s mom assumed they were being robbed and offered the masked tormentors a loaf of bread, but they wouldn’t take it. McConnell writes that they “spent the remainder of the evening — their first Halloween in America — uneasily ignoring the knocks and chants.”
This story is humorous and also instructive for those of us who never stop to consider the difficulties an immigrant must confront when they arrive in a new country. When I interviewed Sen. McConnell about his book at the American Enterprise Institute this summer, the story elicited lots of smiles and laughter from his audience. (At the time, he was critical of the undisciplined campaign Trump was running.)
Speaking of Trump, it might seem ironic that this man who has said so many controversial things about immigrants would then go on to make this selection. So why would he go this route? To some, this pick is cause for celebration. A couple of weeks ago, there was criticism that his appointments were going to be solely white men. To others, it may raise additional serious concerns regarding a conflict of interest for Chao’s husband when it comes to dealing with her new boss.
As the National Journal’s Josh Kraushaar tweeted, this potentially “gives Trump leverage over McConnell for his infrastructure plan, which could entail more spending than GOPers [are] usually comfortable with.”
That’s not to say that Chao isn’t qualified or experienced (she is), but if Trump were looking to find a way to influence McConnell, he might come up with precisely this scenario. The conflict of interest is as follows: McConnell should be focused on the American people, the U.S. Senate, and the Republican caucus. And, in his capacity as Senate majority leader, he should serve as a check on the executive branch.
We currently have a president-elect who is viewed by many Americans as dangerously ambitious and overtly powerful. And one of the primary ways our system reigns in the power of an executive is via a balance of power. Granted, this conflict existed when Chao served in the George W. Bush Cabinet — but Trump isn’t Bush, and McConnell wasn’t Senate majority leader then, either. As Brad Pitt’s character in “Oceans Eleven”tells George Clooney’s character, “OK, here’s the problem: We’re stealing two things. And when push comes to shove, and you can’t have both, which are you gonna choose?”
The selection of Chao also seems to undermine the “Drain the swamp” mantra that was at least part of Trump’s message when he ran against “Crooked Hillary.” Instead of draining the existing swamp, Trump appears to be fighting against the brain drain that might otherwise occur by insisting solely on outsiders to fill the vacant seats in his administration.
Now, it might be unfair to suggest that the incredibly accomplished spouse of the existing Senate majority leader should not be given a certain position because of her incredibly accomplished husband. (D.C. is rife with such potential conflicts of interest.) But I think it’s fair to say that the American people have grown distrustful of the political dog and pony show. Chao’s appointment could (at the very least) raise questions regarding McConnell’s priorities, if he is accused of setting aside conservative concerns about “Keynesian” stimulus spending plans that just happen to be endorsed by the Republican president — who just happens to have hired his wife.
Depending on your perspective, this story is either a positive sign for advancing diversity and the American Dream, or it’s yet another tired example of nepotism and cronyism in government. It’s really all in the eye of the beholder.
Matt K. Lewis is a senior contributor at The Daily Caller and author of Too Dumb to Fail. Follow him on Twitter @mattklewis.