Chao won’t quit over McConnell-Trump feud, say allies
Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao is unlikely to resign over President Trump’s public criticism of her husband Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), say allies, GOP strategists and former Cabinet members.
While there had been some speculation that the escalating feud could alienate Chao — a key player overseeing one of Trump’s top legislative priorities — the broad consensus is that the veteran political player will be unfazed by the controversy.
“Secretary Chao is a consummate professional whose focus is on results and who has run a very tight ship, as Labor Secretary and now in the Transportation Department,” said Ron Bonjean, a longtime Republican strategist who has served in House and Senate leadership offices. “She knows how to execute her responsibilities. She doesn’t let the personal issues… get in the way.”
Still, some say that if Trump’s warning shots turn into action — like mounting a campaign to prod McConnell into stepping down from his post — it’s possible that there could be more serious political repercussions.
“I think there comes a breaking point. If he kept it up, and he started to do anything real, or if McConnell got word he was calling up senators, then I think Elaine has to make a real decision,” said former Gov. Ed Rendell (D-Pa.), who is co-chair of Building America’s Future. “But I don’t think Elaine is at that point.”
Trump has been publicly airing his frustration with the Senate’s top Republican on Twitter this week, after McConnell publicly lamented about the president’s “excessive expectations” for his agenda.
But Trump further escalated the war of words on Thursday, appearing to threaten McConnell if he fails to move big-ticket items over the finish line in Congress.
“If he doesn’t get repeal and replace done, if he doesn’t get taxes done, meaning cuts and reform, and if he doesn’t get a very easy one to get done — infrastructure — if he doesn’t get that done, then you should ask me that question,” Trump said when asked by reporters whether McConnell should consider stepping down.
Trump, however, seemed to go out of his way to separate his harsh criticism of McConnell from his feelings toward Chao.
“Elaine is doing a very good job,” he told reporters. “We’re very proud of Elaine as secretary of Transportation, as you know. I’m very disappointed in Mitch.”
Trump’s comments may have put Chao in an uncomfortable spot, caught in the middle between the White House and McConnell. But some point out that has always been the case, regardless of whether there was any tension between Trump and McConnell.
“I don’t think it puts her in any more of a tough position than she was in before,” said one former Republican Cabinet member. “She’s working for one guy and married to another, and the two of them have to do business together. She knew that the day she was sworn in.”
When pressed on whether the attacks could cause Chao to step down, however, the former agency leader was unequivocal: “hell no.”
“She’s unaffected by this,” he said. “And McConnell is a grown up, he’s been in Washington 40 years, and he’s seen how Trump operates. I doubt anybody’s losing sleep over this.”
Strategists and allies similarly swatted down the notion that Trump’s brazen remarks could push Chao to resign or hurt the administration’s efforts on a massive infrastructure bill.
“I don’t think she’s impacted at all. She was chosen to be a Cabinet secretary based on her expertise, and I don’t think any of that changes,” said Scott Jennings, a Kentucky political strategist who has held senior roles in McConnell’s re-election campaigns. “Secretary Chao is one of the most unflappable people, and I’ve known her since I was 18-years-old.”
Others point out that Chao’s decades of experience will allow her to easily compartmentalize the issue in order to achieve her mission at the Department of Transportation, where she remains fully committed to upgrading the nation’s infrastructure. She could even help bring everyone onto the same page on the issue.
“She’s tough and she’s good, and she’s been down this road before,” said Marcia Hale, president of Building America’s Future. “She’s a real professional. She will do what she needs to do.”
Jennings, who is also a partner at RunSwitch Public Relations, argued that the spat between Trump and McConnell is being hyped up by the media, and that tensions between the White House and congressional leaders are normal – it’s just not always so public.
“We have a front seat to the sausage making like we never have before,” he said.
Still, many strategists acknowledge that Trump’s public broadsides are unhelpful and could serve as a distraction for the White House’s legislative agenda.
Trump has slammed other GOP lawmakers and Cabinet members, including Attorney General Jeff Sessions. That has left some members of Congress and the administration worried that they, too, could get caught in Trump’s line of fire.
“The president is in danger of losing support with his own party if he keeps up these attacks on McConnell. They’re thinking, ‘whose next?’” Rendell said.
There could be political fallout if Trump’s attacks on the majority leader turn personal or grow more heated: Several Republican colleagues already rushed to McConnell’s defense this week after the president’s remarks. But so far, it hasn’t gone in that direction.
“This business is between the president and the majority leader,” said Bonjean, a partner at Rokk Solutions. “It’s a professional dispute.”