Donald Trump’s presidency—and Elaine Chao’s position in the cabinet—has been very, very good to Chao’s spouse, Moscow Mitch McConnell. Politico has found out just how good. In just her first 14 months in office, one-quarter of all Chao’s scheduled meetings with local officials about Department of Transportation projects were with Kentuckians.
And no, Kentucky did not have 25% of the nation’s transportation projects from January 2017 through March 2018. At least five of the 18 meetings Chao had in those months with local officials from Kentucky were requested by McConnell’s staff, and were identified as “friends” or “loyal supporters” of McConnell. Subtle, huh? “Some of the officials who met with Chao had active grant applications before the Department of Transportation through competitive programs and the emails indicate that the meetings sometimes involved the exchange of information about grants and opportunities for the officials to plead their case directly before Chao.” So you have to wonder how competitive those programs actually are.
Clearly, Chao was giving deferential treatment to McConnell’s friends and supporters, and to projects in their state. Tom Watson, the mayor of Owensboro, Kentucky, made it clear after his town secured $1.5 million in funding. He thanked Chao aide Todd Inman, who is also a former McConnell campaign staffer, for “so many high level staffers. . . [to] answer questions and give advice on transit, roads and the political process needed to move our projects along such as I-165. Then, the icing on the cake, time with Secretary Chao herself.” As if that wasn’t enough sucking up, he continued, “What a kind and generous lady, not to mention extremely smart, a true public servant, and a great friend to OBKY.”
Officials from other states don’t have as much luck getting a meeting with Chao. “Ever since she came in, it’s been very hard to figure out how to get time with her,” Beth Osborne, executive director of Transportation for America, told Politico. Her organization advises localities on transportation projects and urban planning. “At the beginning of the administration we got a lot of questions about what it takes to meet with the secretary. People don’t ask anymore. It’s like they’ve given up.” When Osborne heard from officials she works with that they couldn’t get meetings, she suggested that they invite Chao to their states to see projects. “And while I was giving that recommendation I kept hearing from folks, ‘Oh, she doesn’t accept invitations to such things. She just doesn’t do that,'” Osborne said. “And I heard that repeatedly: ‘We offered and we were told she just doesn’t do trips. That’s just not her thing.'”
Her thing, it appears, is making sure that the bucks go to Kentucky and that her husband keeps his job.