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Amy McGrath’s spurious claim that McConnell ‘made millions from China’

Amy McGrath, a Democrat from Kentucky, is running for a U.S. Senate seat. (Bryan Woolston/AP)
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“Oh, and Mitch made millions from China.”

Campaign ad from Amy McGrath, Democratic candidate for U.S. Senate in Kentucky

Regular readers of The Fact Checker may get a sense of deja vu from this TV ad running in Kentucky.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), as we’ve written in previous fact checks, ranks among the wealthiest senators despite being on a public salary for more than 30 years.

How did he do it? In 1993, he married Elaine Chao. Now the secretary of transportation, Chao received a large inheritance when her mother died in 2007. McConnell reported it on his financial disclosure form in 2008 as a “gift from a filer’s relative” valued at $5 million to $25 million.

The “gift from a filer’s relative” has since generated much speculation — and years of fodder for negative ads — that McConnell and his in-laws are cashing in on Chinese connections while he leads the Senate. (He became majority leader in 2015, years after the inheritance.)

The attack ads never explicitly mentioned China, until this one from McGrath started airing, perhaps because the evidence is so thin.

The Facts

McConnell is the seventh-richest senator, according to the Center for Responsive Politics, with an estimated worth of $34 million as of 2018. He earns $193,400 a year as Senate leader.

“His trade deals made China richer, their military stronger. They’re spying on us and they didn’t stop the coronavirus. Oh, and Mitch made millions from China,” the narrator of McGrath’s ad says.

Ruth Mulan Chu Chao and James S.C. Chao were born in China, married while living in Taiwan and moved their family to the United States in 1961. The Chao family owns a shipping company called Foremost Group, based in New York, that has a sizable fleet of ships transporting dry bulk goods in Asia. James Chao founded the company in 1964 and the chief executive is now Angela Chao, Elaine’s sister.

In 2019, Forbes magazine obtained a copy of Ruth Chao’s will and posted it online, finding “she personally had nearly $59 million of assets to her name.” Forbes calculated Elaine Chao would have received about $9 million from the will after her mother’s death in August 2007. “Secretary Chao has no interest, ownership or involvement in the company,” a spokesman for Foremost Group said. The Transportation Department has said the same.

Elaine Chao, who was labor secretary under President George W. Bush, has earned significant income on her own, serving on corporate boards that brought in hundreds of thousands of dollars a year, according to her financial disclosure report when she joined President Trump’s Cabinet.

The story of how McConnell got rich has nothing to do with Chinese trade deals, spycraft or the coronavirus. He simply married into a higher tax bracket. Other than the inheritance in 2007, no record shows McConnell or his wife receiving a financial windfall from the Chaos.

The last time McConnell sought reelection, in 2014, Democratic candidate Alison Lundergan Grimes charged he “quadrupled his net worth on the backs of hard-working Kentuckians that can’t afford it” — a reference to the inheritance. In 2018, a Republican candidate in West Virginia ran ads dubbing McConnell “Cocaine Mitch” because of the connection to Foremost Group. His evidence? The inheritance. The Lincoln Project, a media-savvy group of disaffected Republicans running ads of its own this year, recently received Three Pinocchios for suggesting McConnell got rich through government service. The evidence? Yes, you guessed it, the inheritance.

“Millions and millions came to McConnell and his wife in recent years from a company whose business was powered by Chinese trade,” said Terry Sebastian, McGrath’s campaign spokesman. “It’s more than fair to point out that fact to voters.”

Foremost ships sail under flags registered in Liberia and Hong Kong, and most of the company’s business covers the South China Sea, as Forbes reported.

Kevin Golden, McConnell’s campaign manager, called the ad racist. “Could anyone imagine this ad running in an election if Elaine Chao was born in Europe?” Golden said. “This is a despicable attack on Senator McConnell’s wife whose family fled communism, earned their success through relentless hard work, and have lived the definition of the American dream.”

The Pinocchio Test

We’ve given these ads Three Pinocchios before and will do so again. McConnell became rich because he married into a wealthy family with a profitable business. Specifically, his wife, Elaine Chao, received an inheritance from her mother.

To say McConnell “made millions from China” is grossly misleading. American companies do not become less American by establishing successful shipping routes in the South China Sea.

Three Pinocchios

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