The email arrived in Washington before dawn. An official at the American Embassy in Beijing was urgently seeking advice from the State Department about an “ethics question.”
“I am writing you because Mission China is in the midst of preparing for a visit from Department of Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao,” the official wrote in October 2017.
Ms. Chao’s office had made a series of unorthodox requests related to her first scheduled visit to China as a Trump cabinet member, according to people with knowledge of the email. Among them: asking federal officials to help coordinate travel arrangements for at least one family member and include relatives in meetings with government officials.
In China, the Chaos are no ordinary family. They run an American shipping company with deep ties to the economic and political elite in China, where most of the company’s business is centered. The trip was abruptly canceled by Ms. Chao after the ethics question was referred to officials in the State and Transportation Departments and, separately, after The New York Times and others made inquiries about her itinerary and companions.
“She had these relatives who were fairly wealthy and connected to the shipping industry,” said a State Department official who was involved in deliberations over the visit. “Their business interests were potentially affected by meetings.”
The move to notify Washington was unusual and a sign of how concerned members of the State Department were, said the official, who was not authorized to speak on behalf of the agency.
David H. Rank, another State Department official, learned of the matter after he stepped down as deputy chief of mission in Beijing earlier in 2017. “This was alarmingly inappropriate,” he said of the requests.
The Transportation Department did not provide a reason for the trip’s cancellation, though a spokesman later cited a cabinet meeting President Trump had called at the time. The spokesman said that there was no link between Ms. Chao’s actions as secretary and her family’s business interests in China.
Ms. Chao has no formal affiliation or stake in her family’s shipping business, Foremost Group. But she and her husband, Senator Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, have received millions of dollars in gifts from her father, James, who ran the company until last year. And Mr. McConnell’s re-election campaigns have received more than $1 million in contributions from Ms. Chao’s extended family, including from her father and her sister Angela, now Foremost’s chief executive, who were both subjects of the State Department’s ethics question. [Continue reading…]