Chao sought government resources to arrange China travel for family members: report

Transportation Secretary Elaine ChaoElaine Lan ChaoDemocratic lawmaker asks for probe of reports Chao favored Kentucky officials Chao met with more officials from Kentucky than any other state: report Ex-senior Trump administration official joins lobbying shop MORE asked federal officials to organize travel arrangements for at least one family member and include other relatives in high-level meetings with Chinese government officials timed around her first scheduled visit to China as a Trump Cabinet member, The New York Times reported on Sunday.

The reported arrangements were revealed as part of a Times investigation into close business ties between China and the Chao family's shipping company.

The original trip as Transportation secretary was canceled and rescheduled for six months later, in April 2018, due to a Cabinet meeting with President TrumpDonald John TrumpWarren defends, Buttigieg attacks in debate that shrank the field Five takeaways from the Democratic debate in Ohio Democrats debate in Ohio: Who came out on top? MORE, according to a Transportation Department spokesperson. However, ethics officials from both the State and Transportation departments also became involved, according to the Times.  

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“She had these relatives who were fairly wealthy and connected to the shipping industry,” a State Department official who was involved in the visit told the Times. “Their business interests were potentially affected by meetings.”

This was “alarmingly inappropriate,” according to David H. Rank, a State Department official who previously served as deputy chief of mission in Beijing.

When the trip was rescheduled, Chao’s economy-class ticket with Air China cost $6,784, the Times reported, even though a less expensive ticket was available through United Airlines.

The Chao family’s shipping company, Foremost Group, has transported hundreds of millions of iron ore, coal and bauxite between Canada, Brazil and global ports and China, according to the Times.

A family member denied that the shipping company is particularly focused on China, amid a growing trade dispute between the U.S. and that country.

“We are an international shipping company, and I’m an American,” Elaine Chao's sister Angela, who is Foremost’s chief executive, told the Times. “I don’t think that, if I didn’t have a Chinese face, there would be any of this focus on China.”

Although Chao’s financial disclosure forms do not cite any income from Foremost, the secretary has reportedly boosted the group for years in and out of office at the Transportation Department.

Her father, Foremost’s founder who ran the company until 2018, attended one 2008 trip to China she took as Labor secretary, joining meetings with Chinese officials, including with China’s premier, the Times reported. 

Chao, who is married to Sen. Majority Leader Mitch McConnellAddison (Mitch) Mitchell McConnellTrump-GOP tensions over Syria show signs of easing Trump again vetoes resolution blocking national emergency for border wall Trump invites congressional leaders to meeting on Turkey MORE (R-Ky.), did not disclose her family’s connection to the Chinese maritime industry during her confirmation hearings in 2017, according to The New York Times.

“It was an oversight,” a Transportation Department spokesman told the Times.

A Transportation Department spokesperson in a statement to The Hill called the report a "deep misunderstanding of the work of the Department of Transportation." 

"The Secretary has been one of this country’s greatest advocates for the U.S. flag ship industry and today, the Maritime Administration has the largest operating budget in its history in no small part due to her advocacy," a Transportation Department spokesperson said.