Agency official says Capitol riot hit close to home for former Transportation secretary Chao

Agency official says Capitol riot hit close to home for former Transportation secretary Chao
© Greg Nash

For now-former Transportation Secretary Elaine ChaoElaine ChaoSchumer becomes new Senate majority leader FDA chief says he was 'disgusted' by Capitol riots, considered resigning McMaster: Trump running again would be 'terribly divisive' MORE, last week’s deadly riot in the Capitol by Trump supporters hit too close to home.

Chao’s husband, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnellAddison (Mitch) Mitchell McConnellBudowsky: Democracy won, Trump lost, President Biden inaugurated Biden's inauguration marked by conflict of hope and fear McConnell faces conservative backlash over Trump criticism MORE (R-Ky.), was rushed off the Senate floor to a secure location Wednesday shortly before the mob pushed its way into the chamber. Some of Chao’s closest friends were also in the Capitol building during the siege.

The following day, Chao became the first Cabinet member to resign in protest, citing “a traumatic and entirely avoidable event as supporters of the President stormed the Capitol building following a rally he addressed.”


She officially left the administration on Monday.

A Transportation Department official told The Hill on Chao’s final day in office that the secretary’s decision to step down was a personal one, citing Chao’s friends, colleagues and husband.

When Chao notified White House chief of staff Mark MeadowsMark MeadowsThe Hill's 12:30 Report: Sights and sounds from Inauguration Day Trump leaves White House, promises to be back in 'some form' LIVE INAUGURATION COVERAGE: Biden signs executive orders; press secretary holds first briefing MORE of her departure, she did so at essentially the same time that she informed her closest aides at the agency, the official said.

At 1:30 p.m. on Thursday, Chao had a call with agency staff. The tweet officially announcing her resignation was posted at 1:37 p.m.

In her resignation letter to President TrumpDonald TrumpClinton, Bush, Obama reflect on peaceful transition of power on Biden's Inauguration Day Arizona Republican's brothers say he is 'at least partially to blame' for Capitol violence Biden reverses Trump's freeze on .4 billion in funds MORE that evening, Chao said the riots “deeply troubled me in a way that I simply cannot set aside.”

The two-page letter devoted just two lines to the mob attack on the Capitol.


By stepping down, Chao also removed herself from speculation about whether Cabinet members would support invoking the 25th Amendment to remove Trump from office.

When asked if the 25th Amendment was ever discussed before Chao’s resignation, the Transportation Department official indicated it was not.

Chao was not made available for comment following Thursday’s resignation letter.

Chao served as Trump’s lone Transportation secretary, making her one of just a handful of Cabinet members to stay with the administration for all four years. She previously served as Labor secretary for eight years under former President George W. Bush.

During an interview on Dec. 31, Chao indicated she intended to stay in her post atop the Transportation Department until Inauguration Day.

“We will now have to leave, we don’t get to serve forever, but I’m very proud of the record, the foundation that we have set for future administrations and for our country,” she told The Hill at the time.

Chao leaves an agency that was largely noncontroversial during Trump’s presidency, though the administration’s repeated promotion of an “Infrastructure Week” became a punchline inside the Beltway. The White House and Congress never came to an agreement on an infrastructure package.

At the end of last month, Chao said her biggest worry was the effect the pandemic was having on the transportation industry.

“I worry about the transit system because they’ve got to get up and running when our commuting traffic goes back to work. I’m concerned about Amtrak and Acela, I’m concerned about the airline industry, I’m concerned about the railroad industry. The health of our airline sector is a concern for this administration,” said Chao, who counted among her accomplishments the agency’s work toward deploying new technologies like drones, the hyperloop and autonomous vehicles.

She also said she didn’t have any plans to chat with her likely successor, former South Bend, Ind., Mayor Pete ButtigiegPete ButtigiegThe Hill's 12:30 Report: Sights and sounds from Inauguration Day Biden faces tall order in uniting polarized nation OVERNIGHT ENERGY: Senate majority offers Biden new avenues on Trump environmental rollbacks | Democrats eye action on range of climate bills | Biden pushing to cancel Keystone XL pipeline as soon as he takes office: reports MORE.

“I don’t think he needs any advice from me,” Chao said. “If I had to say anything, it would be that the career professionals at the Department of Transportation are very experienced, very knowledgeable. The career professionals are the ones who keep the government functioning between administrations.”

But on Saturday, in between her resignation announcement and when she left the administration, she spoke on the phone with Buttigieg for about 30 minutes.


The agency official said Buttigieg reached out to Chao, and that the two had a good conversation.

The official said the transition to the Biden administration will proceed smoothly even with Chao’s early departure, noting that political appointees are staying until Jan. 20, and acting Secretary Steven Bradbury has taken over as head of the agency.

Updated at 5:38 p.m.