Over the past several months, the leading Republican presidential candidate has launched a series of racist attacks on the wife of the Republican Party’s Senate leader, a woman who once served in his Cabinet.
But while former President Donald Trump’s taunts at Elaine Chao — demeaning her as “Coco Chow” or a variation of Mitch McConnell’s “China-loving wife” — have been mostly met with silence from fellow GOP officials, the main target of them is now speaking out.
“When I was young, some people deliberately misspelled or mispronounced my name. Asian Americans have worked hard to change that experience for the next generation,” Chao said in a statement to POLITICO. “He doesn't seem to understand that, which says a whole lot more about him than it will ever say about Asian Americans.”
Chao’s statement is an extremely rare case of the former Transportation Secretary wading into the political thicket that her former boss has laid around her since the end of his administration. It suggests that discomfort with Trump’s anti-Asian rhetoric has reached a new level amid several high-profile shootings targeting Asian Americans.
On at least a half a dozen occasions, Trump has taken to his social media platform, Truth Social, to criticize McConnell’s leadership, and to suggest, among other things, that he is conflicted because of his wife’s connection to China. Last fall, in a message widely viewed by Republicans and Democrats as a threat, he said that McConnell “has a DEATH WISH.”
But the personal attacks on Chao have stood out above the others, both for their overt racism and the relatively little pushback they’ve received. McConnell and his team have not responded. And on the rare occasion where she has been asked about them, Chao has pleaded for reporters to not amplify the remarks. Other Republicans have dismissed the attacks as Trump just being Trump. The former president "likes to give people nicknames," Sen. Rick Scott (R-Fla.) said in October on CNN.
Chao immigrated to the U.S. when she was a child from Taiwan and is one of six daughters of Ruth Mulan Chu and James S.C. Chao, the founder of the Foremost Group, a large shipping company based in New York. She went on to graduate from Harvard Business School and served in multiple Republican administrations, and was the first Asian American woman in a presidential Cabinet as Labor secretary for George W. Bush and Transportation secretary for Trump.
Chao’s personal story played an important role in her tenure. She blanketed the airwaves, especially with local media, talking about her immigration story and the promise America holds for others from far-off places.
At times her bureaucratic skills were tested under Trump, as he routinely criticized her husband even as she served in his Cabinet. Chao said at the time that she remained loyal to both men despite their differences.
“I stand by my man — both of them,” Chao told reporters at Trump Tower following a 2017 spat between Trump and McConnell.
But Chao reached her breaking point after Jan. 6. She resigned from the Cabinet, saying the riots “deeply troubled me in a way I simply cannot set aside.”
The statement did not sit well with Trump, who once lauded her work in his Cabinet and he began to include her in his attacks on McConnell. His attacks have “bewildered” Chao, according to a former senior administration official who remains close to her. But she initially decided not to respond since it just “creates another news cycle.”
“Especially for Asians, it’s critical to have filial piety — you honor the family name. And that’s a hit not only to her personal reputation but her name and family,” said the former official, who was granted anonymity to speak candidly about the former secretary. “It’s offensive and a stain on everything he achieved for Asian Americans.”
Steven Cheung, Trump’s spokesperson who is Asian American, said in a statement that the former president’s criticism of Chao was centered on her family’s potential financial conflicts and not race. Chao has been scrutinized over her family’s shipping business. Though an inspector general report released after Trump left office did not make a formal finding of any ethics violations, it did detail multiple instances of Chao’s office handling business related to her family’s company.
“People should stop feigning outrage and engaging in controversies that exist only in their heads,” Cheung said. “What’s actually concerning is her family’s deeply troubling ties to Communist China, which has undermined American economic and national security.”
But few outside Trump’s inner circle dispute that the ex-president’s posts about Chao are racist. And privately, GOP officials have raised concerns that his rhetoric is not mere background noise but an illustration of the way he has fundamentally altered the spectrum of accepted political discourse.
“Trump’s repeated racist attacks on Elaine Chao are beneath the office he once held and particularly despicable in this moment when the Asian American community has been subject to threats and harassment,” said Alyssa Farah, a former administration official turned critic of Trump.
The latest Trump attack — a suggestion that Chao may have been responsible for President Joe Biden bringing classified documents with him to his post-vice presidency office in D.C.’s Chinatown neighborhood — came amid a series of shootings that targeted Asian American communities. All of that has taken place against the backdrop of a rise of violence directed at Asian Americans.
While combating the rise of China has emerged as a rare issue with bipartisan support, there are concerns among lawmakers that anti-China attitudes could contribute to violence against Asian Americans. Some Republicans say Trump’s repeated and personal attacks in particular have hurt party efforts to make further inroads among Asian American voters — a task that the Trump 2020 campaign itself tried to undertake.
Trump’s anti-Asian rhetoric has been directed at others beyond Chao. Over the weekend, he went after a Biden aide, Kathy Chung, believed to be responsible for packing the then vice president’s materials when he was leaving office in 2017. He has said that Virginia Gov. Glenn Youngkin’s name “sounds Chinese” (Youngkin is not Chinese). He has mimicked Asian accents while talking about Asian leaders. He has mocked Asian accents on the campaign trail; he charged a reporter with asking a “nasty question” about Covid testing while insinuating she was doing so because of her Asian background. And he called Covid “Kung-flu.”
Lanhee Chen, a Stanford University professor who unsuccessfully ran as the Republican candidate for California controller last fall, claimed Trump’s language has already hurt the GOP’s ability to reach voters.
“I saw that firsthand when I was a candidate,” said Chen, the son of immigrants from Taiwan. “I talked to a lot of Asian American voters in my state and the feedback I got was, ‘What you represent is great, I love the vision, but I don’t know if I can vote for someone from the same party as Donald Trump because of all actual — and in other cases perceived — commentary towards Asian Americans over the last several years.'”
“And the attacks against Elaine Chao are really puzzling given that she did really good work in his administration and accomplished a lot and benefited his own presidency.”
Asian Americans are among the fastest growing voting blocs in the United States, making up 5.5 percent of the entire eligible voting population, according to Pew Research Center. Those numbers are only expected to grow.
Asian American voters typically lean Democrat, but the Republican Party has invested millions in reaching them in states like California, Texas, Nevada and Arizona. In an op-ed before the midterms, RNC Chair Ronna McDaniel made the case for Asian Americans to join the GOP over shared concerns about the economy and public safety.
But while Trump’s comments haven’t helped with the coalition building, some Republicans predict it will mostly rebound on him.
“It’s a bizarre obsession he has with her,” said Scott Jennings, a Republican strategist and former McConnell aide. “If you heard someone on the street making these rants you’d expect to see them in a sandwich board or a straight jacket.”