On Tuesday morning, CNN’s New Day featured a hit piece on Department of Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao. The report, conducted by CNN correspondent Drew Griffin, alleged, without evidence, that Chao may be using her office as a tool to help her family’s business, the Foremost Group.
At one point, Griffin even admitted that there was no evidence to back up this claim, but then continued to push the narrative that Chao might be guilty of corruption:
The Chao family company called the Foremost Group is based in the U.S. But the company builds ships in China, hires workers in China, and does much of its shipping to and from China. Elaine Chao's sister, Angela, sits on the board of the state run bank of China, and even though there is no evidence Elaine used her office to benefit her family's business, she has repeatedly traveled to China for major events. Several Chinese government and business experts tell CNN her relationship to her family sends a message intended or not. Chinese expert Robert Lawrence Kuhn says though there's been a crackdown on corruption in China, personal relationships remain very important.
The reporter repeatedly referenced the insight of Kathleen Clark, a law professor at Washington University in St. Louis, who claimed that Chao’s actions were a “clear-cut violation” of government ethics rules.
Griffin exposed why the story had such a sudden surge in interest later in the segment. He admitted that the people who believed that Chao was “a new watchdog group headed by Democrats” as well as “several House Democrats”:
A new watchdog group headed by Democrats is now suing the Department of Transportation for any agency documents that mention the Chao family business. Several House Democrats say they are concerned about Chao's use of her office.
If Griffin admits that there is no evidence of any sort of wrongdoing, why is the story being run? Why has CNN resorted to grasping at straws instead of factual reporting? The segment looks to be a partisan attack on the Secretary of Transportation, rather than a factual account of Chao and her family’s business.
Here is the complete transcript of the segment:
CNN New Day
6:40 AM EST [6:40:42 – 6:445:59]
ALISYN CAMEROTA: New controversial surrounding a key Trump cabinet member. Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao is just the latest cabinet member under scrutiny. Government watchdogs and House Democrats accuse her of using her position to raise the profile of her family's shipping business. CNN's Drew Griffin investigates.
DREW GRIFFIN: Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao is the Trump Administration’s top official overseeing shipping in the United States which is exactly the industry that has made Elaine Chao rich. Her family's company, built by her parents, both Chinese immigrants, and now run by her sister Angela is a global leader in dry bulk shipping and does major business in China, which is why Chao's use of her office to put her family and its business on display is raising more than a few eyebrows.
KATHLEEN CLARK (LAW PROFESSOR): She has attempted to use, and she has used government office to help her father and his business.
GRIFFIN: In 2017, Elaine Chao used the Department of Transportation as a backdrop for multiple interviews with Chinese and Chinese language media like this one, her father at her side. And showing off the lapel pin he received flying on Air Force One.
ELAINE CHAO: My father and I traveled on Air Force One. That's always an experience and I was so pleased that I was able to bring my father on Air Force One with the President.
JAMES CHAO: The President spent about 7 minutes with me.
GRIFFIN: The Chao family company called the Foremost Group is based in the U.S. But the company builds ships in China, hires workers in China, and does much of its shipping to and from China. Elaine Chao's sister, Angela, sits on the board of the state run bank of China, and even though there is no evidence Elaine used her office to benefit her family's business, she has repeatedly traveled to China for major events. Several Chinese government and business experts tell CNN her relationship to her family sends a message intended or not. Chinese expert Robert Lawrence Kuhn says though there's been a crackdown on corruption in China, personal relationships remain very important.
ROBERT KUHN: The perception is if you're seen in the company of powerful people or relatives of powerful people in China that is good for your business relationships.
GRIFFIN: A spokesperson for Elaine Chao is quick to point out the Transportation Secretary has no official connection to the Foremost Group, but the Foremost Group has certainly made her rich. Chao and her husband, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell received $5 and $25 million in gifts from Chao's parents, according to 2008 Senate finical disclosers, catapulting McConnell to be one of the richest members. Elaine Chao’s extended family has donated more than a million dollars to McConnell’s political pursuits and Elaine Chao could inherit even more wealth as Foremost Shipping continues to flourish, making scenes like this all the more troubling according to law professor and government ethics expert Kathleen Clark.
CLARK: It's a clear cut violation.
GRIFFIN: Clark says regardless of the perception in China, this use of office violates U.S. Government ethics rules, specifically this one, on endorsing organizations products, or persons.
[GRIFFIN READS ETHICS RULE]
Executive branch employees may not use their government positions to suggest that the agency or any part of the executive branch endorses organizations, products or people.
CLARK: If Secretary Chao did not violate that regulation under these circumstances, then the regulation means nothing. Then any government official will be able to, you know, endorse any kind of outside enterprise associated with the family member.
GRIFFIN: In or out of public office, visit after visit, it is Elaine Chao who appears to be the Foremost Group's most important unofficial representative in China. She has accompanied her father or sister to more than a dozen events there, often meeting top Chinese officials. In 2008 when she served as Labor Secretary, Chao brought her father on an official visit to meet the Chinese Premier. In 2015, she is sitting prominently with a leader and introduced as the former U.S. Labor Secretary. According to a Chinese report, the meeting was to promote mutually beneficial cooperation between Foremost Group and Hubei Province.
A new watchdog group headed by Democrats is now suing the Department of Transportation for any agency documents that mention the Chao family business. Several House Democrats say they are concerned about Chao's use of her office. For now the Department of Transportation is calling the attacks political, an attempt of fabricate a web of tired innuendos and basic inferences, reflecting a lack of understanding of the department's responsibilities, while demonstrating deep cultural misunderstanding, Chao, the spokesperson says has done nothing wrong.
And John, asked if the Chinese could interpret Elaine Chao's behavior an endorsement of her family's business. The spokesperson at the Department of Transportation said we don't speculate on who interprets what in China, and then went on to call some of this media attention racist, stating that if her, Chao’s, last name was Smith, none of this would raise a question. John.
JOHN BERMAN: Interesting. Quite a web there Drew. Thank you so much.