House Democrats are poised to launch an investigation into the Department of Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao over allegations that she used her position to advance the interests of her family and her husband’s political career.
But even as some members of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee say such a probe is inevitable, other Democratic lawmakers have expressed doubts about whether the current evidence is sufficient to warrant it, according to three lawmakers with direct knowledge of the conversations that have taken place over the last several days. And some lawmakers who spoke to The Daily Beast expressed unease—at this time—at calling out the secretary for fear that doing so would affect their ability to advance infrastructure projects in their home districts.
Such hesitation reflects both the unique status Chao enjoys within the Trump administration—where she has heavy sway over federal funds that politicians of all stripes covet—and the wider conundrum that Democrats lawmakers face in going after the president’s team. With aggressive oversight efforts already launched into several other Trump Cabinet officials, senior Democratic aides say a sense of fatigue has set in among members, one that’s been exacerbated by the difficulty the party has had in making progress on already-launched investigative efforts.
“By virtue of her position in the Cabinet and who she is married to, the secretary is a convenient target for those who oppose the work she is doing for the American people,” a spokesperson for the DOT said. “These disingenuous attacks are simply political hit jobs filled with innuendos that continue to be rejected every time they are recycled.”
Rep. Peter DeFazio, the chairman of the House transportation committee, noted that his committee has a full oversight plate—dominated at the moment by probes into the Boeing 737-Max passenger plane. But the Oregon Democrat also told The Daily Beast on Wednesday that his panel is having conversations about an inquiry into Chao.
“We were generally going to review how they do grants because they’ve been slow-walking transit grants around the country,” he said. “I think now we will expand the scope to look at other grants that are at secretarial discretion, and what documentation they may have for such grants.”
Conversations about opening such an investigation have been ongoing on Capitol Hill over the last four days. And on Wednesday night, Rep. Sean Maloney (D-NY), who sits on DeFazio’s committee, said members would investigate Chao.
“The chairman has given me the green light to proceed with an inquiry on this subject,” Maloney said on the Rachel Maddow show. “We intend to get the facts about what happened. And we are not going to pre-judge it. We are going to be fair. The public deserves to know what the truth is.”
The Department of Transportation did not respond to a request for comment.
Questions have surrounded Chao since she was nominated to head the Department of Transportation, owing to the finances of her family and her marriage to the Senate’s most powerful member: Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY). But the criticism has ramped up in recent weeks following the publication of two critical stories.
The New York Times first reported that Chao repeatedly used her “connections and status” to boost her family’s major maritime company, which has deep ties to China. At one point, Chao asked that her family members be included in a meeting in China. American embassy staffers raised ethical concerns and the trip was canceled.
A few days later, Politico reported that Chao had designated one of her staffers to steer federal funds to Kentucky, where McConnell is a senator. That aide reportedly helped shepherd grant applications of interest to McConnell in the lead-up to his re-election. Those applications totaled $78 million, according to Politico.
“You know, I was complaining to her just last night: 169 projects, and Kentucky got only five. I hope we’ll do a lot better next year,” McConnell said Tuesday when asked if he was given special consideration for grants, according to The Washington Post.
Questions of ethical impropriety by a Cabinet member are traditionally examined by the Office of the Inspector General at that particular agency. But officials inside the Department of Transportation’s OIG said they are not currently planning to open an investigation into Chao. And, as of last week, those officials told The Daily Beast that lawyers in the office had not discussed the allegations. One individual with direct knowledge of the office’s conversations said it lacked the “will” to take up an investigation without considerable pressure from Congress.
A spokesperson for the office declined to comment for this article.
Not everyone is content to let Chao skate by without additional scrutiny. Rep. Tom Malinowski (D-NJ), a freshman who has been vocally pressing the administration to fund the Gateway Project, a massive initiative that would make badly needed repairs to the bridges and tunnels that link New York City and northern New Jersey, was highly critical of what he said was preferential treatment for McConnell’s projects by the DOT.
“I just found it strange that no senior official at the Department of Transportation has been appointed to help me get transportation grants of special significance to New Jersey,” Malinowski told The Daily Beast. “It must be an oversight.”
Malinowski declined to call on DeFazio to open up a probe into Chao, but said it would be worth the committee’s time to learn more about “any special treatment or favoritism being shown to any state because of politics or nepotism.”
“We need to understand it,” he said, “and it’s got to stop.”