On Tuesday, President-elect Trump nominated Elaine Chao, the former labor secretary and wife of Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, as transportation secretary.
In a statement released by his transition team, Trump praised her past record of government service: “Secretary Chao’s extensive record of strong leadership and her expertise are invaluable assets in our mission to rebuild our infrastructure in a fiscally responsible manner.”
Previously, she headed the Department of Labor under President George W. Bush’s administration, becoming the first Asian-American woman to serve a Cabinet position. Her other notable former positions include deputy transportation secretary under President George H.W. Bush, director of the Peace Corps, and chair of the Federal Maritime Commission.
As transportation secretary, Chao will have a crucial role in Trump’s infrastructure redevelopment initiative, which among other projects, takes priority in his first 100 days in office. During his campaign, Trump criticized the conditions of the country’s airports, bridges and roads, and promised to spend upwards of $1 trillion to rebuild its infrastructure and create jobs. She would work closely with the administration to help get an infrastructure spending bill through Congress. Given the gridlock in Washington and potential resistance from Trump’s own party, this is a formidable task for the incoming secretary, one potentially complicated by her relationship with McConnell. Chao’s own political expertise and political connections could prove to be a valuable asset for this proposal.
Largely considered a Washington insider, Chao is one of Trump’s more conventional choices for Cabinet seats, which comes as a reassurance to the congressional GOP. In fact, with his recent picks of South Carolina governor Nikki Haley, GOP fundraiser Betsy DeVos and Georgia Representative Tom Price, his cabinet increasingly reflects the Republican establishment. This stream of nominations of Republican heavyweights suggest that Trump’s agenda will remain in line with the party platform, easing the fears of many skeptical Republicans.
In contrast, Trump’s early appointments included some “Washington outsiders”, who he promised would compose his administration on the campaign trail. The announcement of Stephen Bannon, editor of the right-wing news site Breitbart and a voice of the white nationalist “alt-right” movement, as White House chief strategist drew especially sharp backlash.
Chao’s nomination reflects the dilemma Trump is currently in: the need for experienced insiders to help him achieve his agenda versus the pressure to fulfill his campaign promise of “draining the swamp.” His campaign portrayed him as the political outsider and a fresh face in a corrupt Washington. However, he seems to be surrounding himself with the political and business establishment, the people he had once shunned.
Thus far, his supporters have not questioned the president-elect turning away from this promise. Or from his promise of building a 1,000 mile long wall along the USA-Mexico border. Or even from his promise of a full repeal of all provisions of the Affordable Care Act. If this trend continues, Trump’s promise of making America great again may turn out to the empty political rhetoric he so despises.