Elaine Chao: Facts About The Former Cabinet Member And Mitch McConnell's Wife

Elaine Chao is perhaps best known as the former U.S. Secretary of Transportation under President Donald Trump, as well as remembered for her marriage to long-serving Senator Mitch McConnell. While Trump and McConnell's high-profile roles have likely put Chao more into the spotlight, she's a well-accomplished figure in her own right. She immigrated to the U.S. as a child when she was exposed to a whole different culture and language. From there, she worked hard and moved up the ranks through business and government to get where she is today.

While widely respected by people in both the private and public sectors, Chao is still seen as a controversial figure in some circles due to her political ties as well as her work with the Trump administration. Still, the fact is that Chao is an influential figure in the AAPI community who will go down in the American history books, for better or worse. What else should you know about the former transportation secretary?

She was born in Taiwan during a time of regional conflict

Elaine Chao was born in 1953 in Taiwan, and had five younger sisters. Her parents, James Chao and Ruth Chu, grew up in China during a period of war and poverty, though they were also well-educated. Due to the growing instability in China, James and Ruth eventually moved to Taiwan. At first, they were separated for two years before reuniting and getting married, according to Elaine Chao's official website.

From there, James Chao took on a job as a merchant mariner, where he would help navigate ships. However, he was also away from his growing family for long periods of time, prompting James to try to climb the ranks in order to eventually go to the United States. Plus, growing tensions between mainland China and the U.S. over islands in Taiwan also likely increased the family's desire to move elsewhere. James was accepted into a mariner program due to high test scores, and the Chao family made the decision for him to travel overseas. While he set out to create better opportunities for his family, it came with some heartache, as James was in the U.S. away from his family in Taiwan for three years. At the time, according to Chao's website, her mother Ruth was pregnant with her third child. 

She immigrated to the U.S. on a cargo ship as a young child

Elaine Chao was eight years old when she immigrated to the U.S., according to her official website. She, along with her mother and her two younger sisters, had been separated from her father James Chao for three years. It's hard to imagine what it was like for Ruth Chu to be apart from her husband for so long, but it must have also been tough for her young daughters, two of whom were quite young when James went to the States. And as her mother was pregnant with one of her sisters when her father left Taiwan, father and daughter only met for the first time when the family reunited.

Still, the journey to travel to the U.S. wasn't easy for Ruth Chu and the Chao daughters. They traveled via cargo ship, a difficult trip that took 37 days. She also noted in an op-ed for The Washington Post that the cargo ship was the selected means of travel "because it was all my father could afford." The family toughed it through the Pacific Ocean between Taiwan and California. "As an adult looking back and seeing my mother who was only like 27, you know how frightening it must have been as the only woman aboard this cargo ship with three young girls? I mean, that's pretty rough," Chao told CNN in 2017. After the cargo ship journey, Ruth and her daughters then reunited with James in New York.

She experienced difficulties adjusting to life in the U.S.

Not only did she experience challenges adjusting to a new culture and learning a new language, but Elaine Chao also described struggling with bullying from her peers, as well as concurrently having immense pressure to succeed. When she first came to the U.S., she didn't know any English at the time, though her father helped teach her after school. Not only was this lonely for Chao, but the fact that her family was in a new place without any relatives was likely isolating for them, too.

Nevertheless, Chao's parents pushed her to succeed throughout school and also help out at home. "I was really scared that I would not be able to catch on, latch on to mainstream America," Chao told CNN. "I wouldn't be able to find a job. I couldn't ... I couldn't make anything of myself. I'd be a disgrace to my family." She also revealed that she didn't participate in many social conventions, such as high school proms. Despite having lived in a one-bedroom apartment when they first lived in the U.S. together, Chao wrote in The Washington Post that her parents created "a loving home for their daughters and enabled us to access the opportunities in this country."

Her hard work in school eventually paved her way to Harvard University

Elaine Chao's parents encouraged her to work hard and do her best in school. She admittedly achieved this and more! First, she attended Mount Holyoke College, which is a private all-women's college based in Massachusetts. Interestingly, the college's website states that they have "a mission grounded in the conviction that women can — and should — make a difference in the world," which almost reads like a foreshadowing of Chao's own life.

After obtaining her bachelor's degree from Mount Holyoke, Chao was accepted into Harvard University, where she earned her MBA. She studied the banking industry while at Harvard, but also gained her first glimpse into public service during her schooling when a White House fellowship was offered to her. It was also at this point that Chao realized she identified as a Republican, per CNN. In between all of this, she also became a U.S. citizen when she was 19 years old. 

Aside from Chao's BA and MBA degrees, she also holds 37 honorary degrees. These are all doctorates, primarily in the areas of law, the humanities, and public service. Interestingly, while most of the universities that awarded Chao these honorary doctorates are located in the U.S., others are located overseas, such as National Taiwan Ocean University, per her website.

She served as Peace Corps Director under President George H.W. Bush

After serving her fellowship in President Ronald Reagan's administration and completing her MBA from Harvard University, Elaine Chao held several government roles, such as the Deputy Maritime Administrator under the U.S. Department of Transportation. At first, it seemed that she might follow in her father's early career footsteps in the maritime industry. Then, her career shifted in 1991, when President George H.W. Bush appointed Chao to the position of Peace Corps Director. During her directorship, she expanded the Peace Corps program to Ukraine, the Baltic states, and regions that were once ruled by the Soviet Union, as explained by Chao's official website.

Today, the Peace Corps has volunteers in over 60 countries, and the current director, Carol Spahn, assumed her position in late 2022. The agency itself was founded by John F. Kennedy, and since 1961 it has required that the director be appointed by the President and also confirmed by the majority of the U.S. Senate, according to the Peace Corps website. The fact that Chao held this position early in her career speaks to her rapid rise in public service, where she likely made many connections during her fellowship as a Harvard Business School student. This also wouldn't be the last time she would serve in a government-appointed leadership role.

She married Senator Mitch McConnell before her 40th birthday

Elaine Chao first met Senator Mitch McConnell in the early 1990s, and the couple wed in 1993. McConnell was previously married to Sherrill Redmon until their divorce in 1980. McConnell has served as a U.S. Senator of Kentucky since 1985, and the couple's paths crossed after they were introduced by a mutual friend. According to The Washington Post's reporting, Chao and McConnell chose to get married on February 6, which happened to be Ronald Reagan's birthday, a man they both greatly admired. Also, Chao reportedly wanted to get married before she turned 40 years old, and McConnell wanted to get married before the Senate went into recess. Interestingly, the couple chose to get married at the Capitol chapel outside of McConnell's place of work.

Later, in a 2017 interview, Elaine Chao discusses her regret over not having children (McConnell has three daughters from his previous marriage to Redmon). "I try not to have too many regrets," she told CNN. "But I will say to young women, you know, when in my generation, we were taught that we can have it all. And so it was thought, well, you have a career. And then you would, you know, have your family and, well, there'd be no problem. Well, it doesn't work like that." She also went on to suggest that some of her career moves were a trade-off to having children of her own, though she didn't recognize it at the time.

Elaine Chao served as labor secretary in the Bush administration

After some time spent working in the private sector, Elaine Chao would make her way back to public service. This time, she served under another Bush administration. In 2001, President George W. Bush appointed Elaine Chao as the Secretary of Labor. Once confirmed by Congress, she became the first AAPI woman ever to serve in a cabinet position, according to her official website. She's also one of the few people who would serve in more than one cabinet position in their career. Additionally, according to the archives from the Bush administration, Chao was the first person from Kentucky to be appointed to a cabinet position since 1945. While Chao had grown up in New York, went to school in Massachusetts, and also lived in Washington, D.C., her official residence is in the state of Kentucky where her husband Mitch McConnell lives and represents in the Senate.

During her role as Secretary of Labor, she is said to have focused on making changes to reflect the new century. According to information from the U.S. Department of Labor, Chao's leadership is credited for reducing the number of workplace injuries and illnesses, while also helping workers recover lost wages and pension monies. Chao went on to serve under both of Bush's terms until he left office in 2009.

She later served as transportation secretary under the Trump administration

After serving as labor secretary under the Bush administration for eight years, Elaine Chao worked in the private sector again. After Donald Trump won the 2016 presidential election, she was asked to serve on his Cabinet. This time, she was asked to serve as Secretary of Transportation. According to a statement from then President-elect Trump quoted by NPR, he said that "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." Chao was sworn in as the U.S. Secretary of Transportation on January 31, 2017. 

She advanced through the Senate confirmation hearings to secure the Transportation Department's top position, where the vote was 93 to 6, according to official Congressional records. At the time of her nomination, she had argued, as reported on her website, "To prepare for the transportation system of the future, the Department needs to engage with emerging new technologies to address legitimate public concerns about safety, security, and innovation without hampering innovation." During her time, she also dealt with crises, such as transportation management during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Her Department of Transportation directorship had some controversies

While her experience and political affiliation seemed to make Elaine Chao a good fit for the position, her appointment wasn't without controversy. As NPR noted, at the time of her appointment, she was regarded as an establishment figure that ironically joined an administration that ran on an anti-establishment campaign. This also included other noted establishment figures such as Nikki Haley, the former governor of South Carolina. She was also accused of nepotism due to the fact that her husband Mitch McConnell was the leading Republican in the Senate. 

Other controversies emerged during her directorship. First, according to Politico, Chao was accused of helping her husband Mitch McConnell's 2020 re-election through her work at the Department of Transportation. These included grants that helped his state of Kentucky get the money needed for highway improvements. It's not clear whether McConnell could have achieved this without his wife serving in the Department, but critics were quick to point this out. "Where a Cabinet secretary is doing things that are going to help her husband get reelected, that starts to rise to the level of feeling more like corruption to the average American," Brookings Institution scholar John Hudak told Politico.

Another point of controversy during Chao's tenure was President Donald Trump's promise of an "Infrastructure Week" that never came to fruition. As The Washington Post reported, Chao first pledged a $1 trillion infrastructure project back in May 2017. However, other events seemed to overshadow the plan every time it was promised, including various White House scandals.

She was caught in between her boss and her husband

Within months of her confirmation as Secretary of Transportation, Elaine Chao found herself caught in between President Donald Trump and her husband Mitch McConnell, who had been in the middle of a public political argument. This happened early in her term, when Trump lashed out at McConnell for the inability to pass key legislative reforms that the Republican party ran on during the 2016 election. It's important to note here that McConnell was the Senate Majority leader at the time, and Republicans held the majority in both the Senate and the House of Representatives. The late GOP Senator John McCain also famously voted "no" in repealing the Affordable Care Act, which McConnell described as "clearly a disappointing moment," per NPR.

Such perceived failures angered Trump. According to Politico, Trump wrote on Twitter, "Senator Mitch McConnell said I had 'excessive expectations,' but I don't think so. After 7 years of hearing Repeal & Replace, why not done?" Chao was admittedly put in an awkward position, as her boss (Trump) publicly attacked her husband. "I stand by my man, both of them," Chao famously told the press when she was with Trump at a transportation briefing and was asked about the controversy.

She resigned in the wake of the January 6 Capitol riot

Elaine Chao was the first Cabinet secretary to resign after the pro-Trump riot on the Capitol building on January 6, 2021. In her resignation letter, she stated that the attempted insurrection "deeply troubled" her, and that it could have been avoided, according to Politico. She was criticized by Republicans for not staying on for just a couple of more weeks before Biden took office, as well as lambasted by Democrats who saw the resignation as an attempt to save Chao's reputation. Still, other Cabinet secretaries soon followed her example. According to the Wall Street Journal, these included acting Secretary of Homeland Security Chad Wolf and Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos. Other workers throughout the White House also resigned.

Chao's resignation marked the end of nearly four years working in a tumultuous administration. However, the length of her tenure also can be perceived as speaking volumes about her work ethic. As Politico pointed out, Chao was not only one of the first Cabinet secretaries appointed by President Trump, but she was also among the few who served the longest.

She endured racist attacks from her former boss

Since her resignation from the Trump administration, Elaine Chao has endured racist attacks from former President Trump himself. While Chao and her husband Mitch McConnell have largely tried to ignore these remarks in the past, Chao is now starting to speak up. "When I was young, some people deliberately misspelled or mispronounced my name," she told Politico in January 2023. "Asian Americans have worked hard to change that experience for the next generation. He [Trump] doesn't seem to understand that, which says a whole lot more about him than it will ever say about Asian Americans."

In 2023, she also penned an op-ed for The Washington Post, More recently, she's also called for a National Museum in Washinton, D.C. dedicated to AANHPI history, writing that "our story is inextricably linked to America's story." It's important to note that this op-ed was written during a time when attacks on the Asian-American community have been on the rise in recent years. According to the Pew Research Center, a 2022 survey revealed that more than 60% of Asian Americans believe violence against their community is on the rise, while a large percentage have also reported altering their day-to-day habits to avoid such dangers.

She hopes to be a role model for other Asian Americans

No matter where you lie on the political spectrum, it's hard to ignore the fact that Elaine Chao's life and career are an inspiration. Her own personal experiences have reportedly made her passionate about making sure there are career opportunities for people from all walks of life. In particular, she's talked about being a role model for Asian Americans, many of whom reportedly come to see her at the airport or at formal events, according to CNN.

In the public eye, she's perhaps best known for serving as both secretary of labor and transportation. But outside of government, Elaine Chao has also held several private-sector positions. These include business roles, such as serving on the board of directors for Kroger, as well as working for non-profits such as the Ronald Reagan Foundation. Still, she had some powerful words on the ANNHPI community that she wrote in the same Washington Post op-ed. She reminded the public that, "our history is too often overlooked, our contributions to this nation are sometimes forgotten, and our right to be here is too often questioned."

She's also gained the admiration of other public servants who have commended her work and passion. Shelley Moore Capito, a current senator from West Virginia, was quoted by Harvard Business School as saying that she appreciated Chao's "dedication, compassion and ability in the many positions she has held." Also, another senator from Nebraska, Deb Fischer, was quoted as saying that Chao has "a legacy of principled leadership and enormous accomplishment that so many of us will long remember."