President-elect Donald Trump picked a Washington insider Tuesday for his secretary of transportation, selecting former labor secretary Elaine L. Chao for the post.
Chao became the first Asian American woman to be named to a Cabinet post in 2001 and went on to head the Labor Department under George W. Bush for eight years.
In naming a former Cabinet member, who has been married to Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) since 1993, Trump selected another Washington insider after campaigning on a promise to “drain the swamp” of the influences that he said permeate the capital.
Chao is expected to play a critical role in the administration if the president-elect follows through on his campaign promise to invest $1 trillion in restoring bridges, roadways and transit systems over the next 10 years.
“The President-elect has outlined a clear vision to transform our country’s infrastructure, accelerate economic growth and productivity, and create good paying jobs across the country,” Chao said in a statement released with Trump’s announcement.
That would make her Trump’s point person in negotiating his legislative agenda to achieve that plan with congressional leaders, presumably including her husband. Congress has struggled to come up with money to meet transportation needs in recent years, as the traditional source of revenue — the federal gas tax — has fallen short.
There are sticky differences between what Trump has proposed and what Congress has shown itself willing to accept. For example, congressional Republicans have been sticklers about what are called "pay-fors." If spending is to expand, they insist on knowing where the money will come from.
The heart of Trump’s revitalization plan is issuing massive tax credits to investors who would step in to build and rebuild infrastructure. But his “pay-for” is the questionable belief that putting construction workers and contractors on the job will yield new tax income that will compensate for the tax credits.
McConnell and House Speaker Paul D. Ryan (R-Wis.) are critical players both in negotiating with the administration and quieting fractious members — often from their own party — who might obstruct their goals. Whether Chao will negotiate directly with her husband was unclear Tuesday.
“Let me be quite clear, I will not be recusing myself,” McConnell said. “I think it was an outstanding choice.”
The pace of Chao’s nomination is likely to move quickly, as her recent public service means that there are somewhat recent vetting files on her. McConnell promised to quickly move ahead with hearings on some nominees even before Trump is sworn in Jan. 20.
"We hope on January 20 that, even though there's a lot going on that day, we hope to be able to vote on and confirm a number of the president's selections for the cabinet so that he can get started," McConnell said.
If Chao is confirmed, it would not be the first time that a Cabinet member has been put in position to deal directly with a spouse.
Elizabeth Dole served as secretary of transportation during the Reagan administration during a period when her husband, Bob Dole, was Senate majority leader.
Samuel K. Skinner, who hired Chao after he was transportation secretary under President George H.W. Bush, described her as an effective communicator with Congress.
“Her relationships in Washington are really deep and very well-respected, and that helps a lot,” Skinner said.
Sen. Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.), the incoming Senate minority leader, said in a statement that he hopes Chao “is willing to work with Democrats.”
“Senate Democrats have said that if President-elect Trump is serious about a major infrastructure bill, backed by real dollars and not just tax credits and without cutting other programs like health care and education, that we are ready to work with his administration,” Schumer said.
Since departing the Bush administration, Chao served as a fellow at the Heritage Foundation and, more recently, as a fellow with the Hudson Institute, a Washington think-tank headed by conservative commentator Kenneth R. Weinstein. She also has been a contributor to Fox News. She served four years as president of United Way.
Before becoming politically active, Chao was a vice president of Bank of America and an international banker at Citicorp.
A career in public service that began as a White House fellow in Ronald Reagan's administration grew to stops in the Maritime Administration of the U.S. Department of Transportation. She served as a deputy secretary of transportation under George H.W. Bush and went on to direct the Peace Corps for two years in the early 1990s.
As secretary of labor, Chao and two other Cabinet members took a bus tour across the country to promote George W. Bush's tax cuts. She earned a reputation for reforming regulations and restructuring the department.
During a major West Coast labor dispute at several ports, the Bush administration invoked the Taft-Hartley Act for the first time since 1971.
Her tenure as secretary of labor was not free of controversy.
Labor leaders remain hostile after her sharp-elbowed approach to unions set the tone. Shortly after she left office in 2009, she touted her department’s crackdown on unions.
“From 2001-2008, the Labor Department secured more than 1,000 union fraud-related indictments and 929 convictions,” she claimed in a Heritage Foundation essay, though she provided no specifics.
The Government Accountability Office said in a report that her department did not fully investigate when low-wage workers lodged complaints against their employers over failure to pay the minimum wage or overtime.
Chao also faced criticism in two mining disasters that occurred after coal mine inspections were reduced. In the Sago Mine incident in 2006, 12 miners were killed. The following year, three rescue workers died at Crandall Canyon Mine as they tried to reach trapped miners.
Though Chao announced beefed up inspections after the two disasters, an inspector general's report in 2008 found that many mines still went uninspected.
Chao also faced controversy involving her husband. In 1999, a House committee heard testimony from John Huang, a former midlevel Commerce Department official, who said that Chao asked him to contribute to McConnell. The Indonesian company for which he worked, Huang said, illegally reimbursed him for the $2,000 contribution. Huang later pleaded guilty to violating campaign finance laws for funneling $100,000 to Bill Clinton's 1996 reelection campaign.
Chao’s selection creates a strong tie among two people who otherwise have little in common — McConnell and Trump, whose relationship during the campaign was neither confrontational nor cordial.
Early in the primary season, McConnell did not support Trump’s candidacy, but he never wavered once Trump wrapped up the nomination and was destined to be on the ticket this fall.
Chao, 63, was born and received her early education in Taiwan. Chao, her mother and two sisters immigrated to the United States in 1961. She was 8 years old when the family arrived.
"We didn't speak any English and we were not familiar with any of the American customs. We left behind everything that was near and dear to us — our families, our friends, my schooling, and our tradition and our culture and our food," Chao told graduates at Indiana's DePauw University in a 2002 address.
During the early, difficult days, Chao said, "it was the kindness and the helping hands of strangers, who soon became neighbors and our friends, that helped us smooth our transition."
After high school in Upstate New York, she received an economics degree from Mount Holyoke College and an MBA from Harvard Business School.
Chao was steeped in the transportation world early. Starting as a young girl, she watched her father build a global shipping business. He still runs the company, the Foremost Group, with two of Chao’s sisters.
Chao’s perspectives on transportation and management were also shaped in part by her stints in corporate boardrooms.
She served as a director at Northwest Airlines, where she was granted lifetime travel benefits before the airline was acquired by Delta. She was also a former director at Parsons, the international construction company.
Lori Aratani, Paul Kane, Michael Laris and Martine Powers contributed to this report.
This story was updated on Dec. 19 to reflect Chao’s role with the Hudson Institute.