Elaine Chao Joins Trump’s Cabinet as Secretary of Transportation

Former Secretary of Labor Elaine Chao.
Former Secretary of Labor Elaine Chao.

Former Secretary of Labor Elaine Chao, who is the only member of President George W. Bush’s Cabinet to serve the full eight years of his two terms in office, has been selected by President-Elect Donald Trump to head the Department of Transportation in his upcoming administration.

Chao, who was the first Asian American woman to sit on a presidential Cabinet, previously served as Deputy Secretary of Transportation and Director of the Peace Corps under President George H.W. Bush.

Chao’s tenure as Labor Secretary was marked by her decidedly pro-business stance, leaving her frequently at odds with labour unions and workers’ rights groups. The Government Accountability Office reported in 2008 that the Labor Department inadequately investigated tens of thousands of complaints filed by workers alleging labour violations. In addition, the Department of Labor under Chao was repeatedly criticized for failing to conduct proper safety inspections to protect worker health, while redirecting resources towards stricter scrutiny of labour unions’ financial records. Nonetheless, Chao has remained a powerful player within the national Republican party even after leaving the position of Secretary of Labor, particularly as a close strategist and advisor to her husband of over twenty years, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell.

South Carolina Governor Nikki Haley. (Photo Credit: Chase Stevens/AP)
South Carolina Governor Nikki Haley. (Photo Credit: Chase Stevens/AP)

If she is confirmed by the Senate as Transportation Secretary, Chao stands to be one of the key members of Trump’s Cabinet. Trump has promised to dedicate $1 trillion dollars towards infrastructure projects. The plan has bipartisan support, but critics note that Trump has not said where that money will come from. Furthermore, Chao’s history of prioritizing the pro-business lobby in favour of workers’ rights causes me a great deal of concern; if confirmed, Chao will be charged with planning and implementing construction projects that serve as the cornerstone of the President-Elect’s plan to create thousands of new jobs.

Chao is the third Asian American woman to be announced by the Trump transition team to fill a Cabinet position or other top role in the administration. Earlier in the month, Trump announced that South Carolina Governor Nikki Haley, who has very little experience in foreign affairs and diplomatic relations, has been chosen to serve as U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations. It’s hard to provide tangible criticism for Haley’s selection to a position she has no material qualification for, but Haley has been repeatedly criticized for her johnny-come-lately criticism of the Confederate flag and her race-baiting rejection of the Black Lives Matters movement even when her state saw the state-sanctioned murder of Walter Scott — who was videotaped fleeing for his life moments before he was shot in the back and killed by a police officer — as well as one of the most heinous acts of domestic racial terrorism in recent memory.

The Trump transition team also announced today that Seema Verma, the CEO of a health policy consulting firm, will oversee the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services. Verma’s firm has worked heavily with Pence’s administration to create and implement the Healthy Indiana Plan, which was intended to create healthcare coverage for the state’s low-income residents as an alternative to the the plans available in the insurance exchanges created under the Affordable Care Act. However, under the Healthy Indiana Plan, low-income residents are required to contribute a percentage of their income by a pre-specified due date, and in return receive a plan that charges $1,100 deductibles for services, and provides virtually no preventative care coverage. Verma has been quoted as saying that the plan relies on a “strong personal responsibility mechanism.” By selecting Verma to head the nation’s Medicare and Medicaid programs, Trump’s administration signals that they believe a similar philosophy should be applied to federal programs designed to ensure healthcare services for the nation’s lower-income and elderly populations.

(By the way, Speaker Paul Ryan mentioned in an interview last week, that he plans to help the Trump administration phase out Medicare entirely in Trump’s first days in office, and to replace it with a system of subsidies for private health insurance plans.)

Thus far, three Asian American women have been chosen for top positions in the Trump Administration, and one can’t help but wonder if their race and their gender are being used as a preemptive shield to deflect criticisms of racism and sexism rightfully directed towards the President-Elect. Are a handful of select Asian American women, again, expected to serve as convenient objects of political display, assumed by stereotype to be seen but not heard in a Trump Administration (and a Republican Party) otherwise overwhelmingly dominated by bloviating White men?

Then again, I see little benefit by having Chao, Haley, and Verma ‘lean-in’ at Trump’s table. Throughout their careers, Elaine Chao, Nikki Haley and Seema Verma have worked to create public policies that undermine the lives of underprivileged, low-income people, which includes the 12.3% of Asian American women who currently live below the poverty line and the many more AAPI and other Americans who are in desperate need of a government that protects workers’ rights and low-income healthcare coverage.

Even though I, too, am an Asian American woman, I see no allies here. All too frequently, Chao, Haley, Verma have shown, by their words and by their work, to stand in opposition to people of colour and the poor.

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  • Ryan Clarke

    When one has been tribalized into either of the two major political parties, it becomes gut reflex to attack minorities on the other side of the aisle as “sell-outs”. In fact, whites in both parties strongly depend on minorities in their party to be attack dogs towards minorities in the other camps. The same way white Republicans often used black conservatives to attack Obama because it was more acceptable for them to do so. White liberals depend on tribalized minorities on the Left to do the same to their own that rise in the ranks on the other side of the aisle. What is lost in the process is the recognition of racial progress in the ranks of leadership; dismissed because one automatically assume that minorities of the other party are working against their interests.

  • trer24

    Actually, the article clearly lays out the previous actions and decision making of the three newly appointed cabinet members and how their policies have hurt the working poor and PoC. None of them has indicated any changes in their thinking so it’s reasonable to assume that future policy they will be creating will be more of the same. It is fair to criticize them based on their past actions and we shouldn’t just accept their appointment as “progress” simply because they are WoC themselves.

  • FreetheMind

    These are white male lapdogs who have been supporting “white is right” all their lifes. They are only there because white men can claim “diversity” and have these lapdogs support white male issues without any complaint. There is nothing better for white men to use Asian women to do their dirty work and claim “diversity” at the same time. I hope people will see the truth sooner rather than later.

  • Ryan Clarke

    Not quite. it’s the standard left-wing diatribe; for example criticizing Haley for her “late” position on the confederate flag when was her leadership that led to its being taken down. It totally misrepresents, out of fairly standard partisan bias, her achievements on behalf of POC. Of course trying to explain the biases that stem from partisanship to a partisan is rarely a successful endeavor. Left-wing POC are used to tear down right-wing POC and vice-versa. It’s a reliable strategy.

  • I find this comment quite the fascinating sleight of hand.

    This post provides concrete examples about stances that Haley, Chao, and Verma have taken that I find to be at odds with the interests of marginalized people. We can discuss whether or not the selection of a politician with no foreign policy experience to represent the United States at the United Nations is sensible. We can note that Haley’s position on Black Lives Matter is decidedly at odds with the position of the United Nations on the matter, and how disagreement over whether the plight of Black people in American constitutes a human rights crisis might impact how the United States interacts with the UN in the coming years. We can discuss whether selection of the architect of the Healthy Indiana Plan — which is objectively a bad plan for poor people — to run (or help privatize) the highly popular federal programs designed to ensure healthcare coverage for the nation’s elderly, young people, and poor people is sensible. We can discuss whether selection of a former Labor Secretary whose legacy as such was marked by pro-business, anti-union, de-regulation stances to a position where she will oversee numerous infrastructure projects involving contracts with many business owners in the manufacturing & construction sectors is sensible. We can wonder how any of these choices — representing selection of several Establishment figures and political insiders — actually “drains the swamp.” Above all, we can express a rejection of pure identity politics by focusing on criticisms of these selections’ resumes, rather than their identities as WOC. These are all reasonable positions to have.

    But, to dismiss these criticisms as “standard left-wing diatribe” is to offer a weak rebuttal that shifts attention away from the message and towards a veiled assault on the messenger. I have never apologized for being progressive, or for being POC, but your comment asserts that the combination of these two identities automatically means — by virtue of those identities alone — that any criticism I might offer (regardless of supporting evidence I present) must be innately biased. It criticizes my position as being underthought by using — ironically — a fairly underthought form of identity-based reasoning.

    Most ironic is this: despite your hand-wringing over partisanship, it is partisan bias that would motivate you to overlook the material failings of these Cabinet choices to instead recognize the “racial progress” of their selection. It is partisan bias that would motivate you to attack these criticisms based on your disdain for the politics of the critic, rather than to consider whether or not the criticisms might actually have merit, regardless of my political affiliation.