Chao resigns from Transportation Department, citing 'traumatic,' 'avoidable' Capitol riot

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Elaine Chao is resigning as Transportation secretary, citing the troubling nature of President Donald Trump’s rally Wednesday and the chaos that it later spurred as rioters tore through the halls of the Capitol building.

With her resignation, effective Jan. 11, Chao becomes the first of what had been a rumored wave of Cabinet secretaries who were reportedly discussing stepping aside in protest.

Chao’s ties to Congress, especially the Senate, go deeper than most. Her husband is Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, she regularly attends Senate spouse luncheons and she calls many senators personal friends.

Calling the riot a "traumatic and entirely avoidable event," Chao said it had "deeply troubled me in a way I simply cannot set aside."

But some greeted her announcement with derision, suggesting that instead of resigning she should stay on and use her position to remove Trump from office.


“At this late a stage, resignations help little beyond serving as late attempts at self-preservation,” said Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez in a tweet. “If Sec. Chao objects to yesterday’s events this deeply, she should be working the Cabinet to invoke the 25th amendment — not abdicating the seat that allows her to do so.“

Chao’s resignation took even her top staff by surprise. As of Wednesday night, Chao had not said anything to her most senior aides about her thoughts on resigning. By early Thursday morning, she acknowledged she was considering leaving and by early afternoon she announced to her team that she was stepping down, with a formal email to all staff following around 1:30 p.m.

With her resignation, Chao closes out a tenure atop the Department of Transportation marked by a bruising critique of how her agency handled grounding Boeing’s 737 MAX planes as well concerns about her potential conflicts of interest and the abandonment of Trump’s multitrillion-dollar infrastructure vision.

She also took pride in a department-wide focus on prioritizing rural projects, and her department had lengthy sparring matches over California’s high speed rail project and Gateway, an expensive and much-needed program to replace aging rail and transit tunnels in New York and New Jersey.

She has had to be the torchbearer not just for some of the administration’s unpopular decisions but also an ever-shifting slate of proposed budget cuts to her own department. She also defended the administration’s short-lived position in favor of spinning the air traffic control system off from the FAA, saying the idea was “very fair” and equitable.

And after two 737 MAX jets crashed, Chao took a backseat, allowing the administrator of the Federal Aviation Administration to decide on whether to ground the planes (even though Trump himself ultimately ordered the grounding, stepping in front of the FAA in the process) and to be the face of the administration’s response to ongoing probes.

She often said safety was the department’s number one priority, and innovation was a close second. Chao put out two versions of department guidance on driverless cars while maintaining a voluntary approach to compliance. The department also prioritized the integration of drones into the airspace under her leadership.

Chao has embraced technological innovation, even creating a new council to vet permit applications for transportation innovations that don’t fit neatly into one modal silo, like hyperloop and the somewhat more modest “loop” project between Washington, D.C., and Baltimore. She also ultimately oversaw the long-delayed rulemaking for remote drone identification and tracking, which is seen as the prerequisite for all manner of expanded drone operations. And in the absence of legislation forcing DOT’s hand, Chao has chosen not to issue any requirements for the developers of autonomous vehicles to self-certify the vehicles’ safety.

Chao and her team made some significant changes to the agency’s regulations which will reverberate into the Biden administration, even as Democrats start to look at reversing some of them.

For instance, DOT changed the hours of service rules for truck drivers, giving them more flexibility about when to take rest breaks, to the frustration of safety advocates who warned they would make the roads more dangerous.

The agency also contributed to a rollback of Obama-era vehicle emissions standards, one of the highest-profile and most controversial regulatory changes of the Trump administration. And it recently finalized a regulation narrowing the agency’s own authority to police unfair and misleading airline practices.

Allegations of conflicts of interest dogged her tenure, with persistent reports that she had used her office to promote her family’s shipping business, even trying to include family members in high-level meetings with the Chinese government, and to boost her husband‘s political fortunes by showering attention and grant money on McConnell’s constituents and prominent Kentucky supporters. These ethics allegations prompted House Democrats and DOT’s inspector general to launch probes.

Chao was among the first Cabinet officials to be announced after Trump was elected, and is one of the few who has lasted almost to the end. When she was selected, the pick was largely lauded by a Washington wary of whom Trump would appoint to his Cabinet; she was seen as a leader with experience and gravitas. And, in an administration marred by scandal, firings and resignations, Chao is notable for having stayed largely above the fray.

But she has had a few moments in the glare of the national spotlight.

For instance, there was the summer of 2017, when Chao stood beside Trump in the lobby of Trump Tower, eager to tout a new executive order to speed infrastructure project delivery time, only to be overtaken by Trump’s extemporaneous comments defending white nationalists rallying in Charlottesville as “very fine people.” At the same press conference, when asked whose side she took in an ongoing feud between Trump and her husband, McConnell, Chao awkwardly answered: “I stand by my man — both of them.”

And there was the moment where Chao announced on a press call about positive train control that she “would like some credit” for implementing the technology, which is intended to reduce train collisions, claiming "nothing happened on this until we came into office.” Former Federal Railroad Administrator Sarah Feinberg under President Barack Obama called the claim "literally the biggest pile of BS I’ve ever encountered."

Her tenure at DOT was her second stint as Cabinet secretary, having served as President George W. Bush’s secretary of Labor for his entire eight years in office, earning the distinction of being one of just two Cabinet-level officials to last the entire duration of the Bush administration. (The other was drug czar John Walters.)

Chao’s nomination to the post was announced just three weeks after Trump’s election, and she was among the first Cabinet officials to be confirmed by the full Senate on Jan. 31, 2017. A sharp contrast from many of Trump’s other nominees, whose nominations were bitterly partisan affairs, Chao was confirmed by a vote of 93-6 on the Senate floor after being dispatched out of committee by a simple voice vote.

General Counsel Steven Bradbury is next in the order of succession and is expected to take the reins for the remainder of the term.

Daniel Lippman and Sam Mintz contributed to this report.



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