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Elation, Concern Greet Trump’s Asian American Cabinet Choices

By Jennie L. Ilustre

President-elect Donald J. Trump announced in November he would nominate three American women of Asian descent to his 15-member Cabinet. His action and the choices he made got mixed reaction from Asian American leaders.

Some elated leaders gave it a response akin to a high five, touting the triumph of talent and diversity. Others looked at two prominent choices, and noted a track record that has failed to support the interests of Asian Americans and other disenfranchised communities.


Elaine L. Chao, who made history in 2001 as the first Asian American woman appointed to the President’s Cabinet, is the most prominent of the three. On November 29, Trump named her as his choice to be the nation’s Secretary of Transportation. Chao served as Secretary of Labor from 2001 to 2009 under President George W. Bush.



Earlier on November 23, Trump announced he would nominate Republican South Carolina Governor Nikki Haley, who traces her roots to India, as Ambassador to the United Nations. Haley was not a popular choice, particularly among Trump supporters. Although widely recognized as a rising star in the Republican Party, she had backed Senator Marc Rubio, then Senator Ted Cruz during the Republican primary, and sharply criticized Trump during the campaign. The media noted she lacked foreign policy experience.

Former Secretary Chao and Governor Haley are expected to face smooth sailing in their confirmation hearing before the Republican-dominated Senate. The 115th US Congress, which has Republican majority in both the House and the Senate, formally opens on January 3.

Trump also selected Seema Verma, the founder of a health policy consulting firm, to head the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services.


Mixed Reaction

Vellie Dietrich-Hall, a member of the US Commission on Civil Rights and former president of the Filipino American Republicans of Virginia (FARV), was among those who hailed the selection of Chao and Haley. “President-elect Trump has chosen Asian Americans who are very capable and highly-experienced leaders,” she said.

“I admire his decision to nominate Governor Nikki Haley despite her negative statements against him and her support of Senator Marc Rubio during the Republican primary,” she added. “Trump knows that Haley can and will deliver. His choice of former Labor Secretary Chao is welcome news, because she has a proven record of in-depth public service at the national level.”

Chiling Tong, CEO of the International Leadership Foundation said: “Secretary Chao was also a great Deputy Secretary of Transportation and has extensive experience in transportation.  She will help improve our country’s infrastructure and create more jobs. This is wonderful news for the Asian Pacific American community.”

But some Asian American leaders were critical of the move and the choices, with Executive Director Gregory A. Cendana of the Asian Pacific American Labor Alliance, AFL-CIO (APALA) remarking, “We must not conflate access or a seat at the table with actual power to influence policy or decision makers.” He added that the “diversity picks,” alongside a slate of predominately white nominees, “continue to shape a Trump administration that undermines the values so central to our communities and the fabric of our country.”

Mee Moua, president of Asian Americans Advancing Justice/AAJC, pointed out: “Given the incoming administration’s penchant for naming anti-immigrant and anti-civil rights individuals to high-level positions in the new administration, Asian American and Pacific Islanders (AAPI) will not be mollified by the selection of Nikki Haley for U.N. Ambassador and Elaine Chao for Secretary of the Department of Transportation, neither of whom have a track record of supporting the interests of AAPIs and other disenfranchised communities.”

APALA National President Johanna Puno Hester commented: “If Chao’s time as Labor Secretary is any indication of what she’d bring to the table as Transportation Secretary, then we can expect a term that parlays with corporate interest rather than the safety of the people and the environment.”

The Committee of 100, a top organization composed of prominent Chinese Americans, hailed Chao’s nomination as “a highly positive signal of the incoming Trump administration’s commitment to diversity and inclusion.”

The Committee of 100, led by Chairman Frank H. Wu, noted: “Chao’s impressive expertise, nuanced grasp of policy, and extensive experience in government, will be invaluable in implementing the Trump administration’s priorities to develop America’s infrastructure, rejuvenate its transportation system, and create jobs.”



Former Labor Secretary Chao, wife of incoming Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnel (R, Ky), is a Distinguished Fellow at Hudson Institute. On her confirmation as Secretary of Transportation under the Trump administration, she will be the first Asian American female to serve in Cabinet posts for two American Presidents. Before becoming Labor Secretary, Chao served as President and Chief Executive Officer of United Way of America, Director of the Peace Corps, and Chairman of the Federal Maritime Commission. She was Vice President of Syndications at Bank of America Capital Markets Group and Citicorp.

An immigrant who came to the US at age 8 speaking not a word of English, she became a US citizen when she was 19 years old.  She earned her MBA from the Harvard Business School and an economics degree from Mount Holyoke College.

Govenor Haley, 44, promptly accepted Trump’s offer, announced on November 23. In a statement, she said she did so “out of a sense of duty” to the country, according to NBC News.

Her star began to rise after becoming South Carolina’s first woman and first minority governor. She was even in the list of potential Vice President picks during this year’s elections. Haley was reelected South Carolina’s governor in the 2014 midterm elections. Prior to that, she served in the State House for three terms. She would succeed Samantha Power, UN ambassador since 2013.


Strong Leadership

President-elect Donald J. Trump said, “Secretary Chao’s extensive record of strong leadership and her expertise are invaluable assets in our mission to rebuild our infrastructure in a fiscally responsible manner,” “She has an amazing life story and has helped countless Americans in her public service career.”

Secretary Chao said: “The President-elect has outlined a clear vision to transform our country’s infrastructure, accelerate economic growth and productivity, and create good paying jobs across the country. I am honored to be nominated by the President-elect to serve my beloved country as Transportation Secretary.”

Reuters news agency, which reported the news on Chao ahead of Trump’s announcement, pointed out that she would be making a number of big decisions as Transportation Secretary. The department oversees the country’s vehicles, airplanes, railroads, pipelines, ports and highways, including new regulations on self-driving cars and unmanned drones, among other things.


More Reactions

The Committee of 100 Chairman Frank H. Wu said, “We are proud to see excellent Chinese Americans like Elaine Chao take on leadership roles and serve the country.”

Many C100 members themselves have engaged in public service. Among them are: Former US Assistant Secretary of Energy Robert Gee, Commissioner of the Federal Maritime Commission Ming Chen Hsu, Senior Counselor to the White House National Economic Council Ginger Lew, former US Secretary of Commerce and US Ambassador to China Gary Locke, former US Deputy Undersecretary of Commerce and current Maryland Deputy Secretary of Commerce Benjamin Wu, and former U.S. Attorney for the Central District of California Debra Wong Yang.

The Committee of 100 (www.committee100.org) is an international, non-partisan leadership organization. Its members are prominent Chinese Americans in business, government, academia, arts and entertainment. Founded over 25 years ago, it has a dual mission: “Promoting the full participation and inclusion of Chinese Americans in all fields of American life, and encouraging constructive relations between the peoples of the two countries.”

Michelle Park Steel, Vice Chair of the Orange County Board of Supervisors in California, and a member of President-Elect Trump’s Asian Pacific American Advisory Committee said: “I have known Elaine Chao for more than 20 years, and I am confident that she will be an excellent Secretary of Transportation.”

Politico, a top newspaper in the nation’s capital, reported Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) congratulated Chao and praised her long record of service to the nation.

The report added Schumer said Senate Democrats stand ready to work with the incoming administration if Trump is serious about a major infrastructure bill. That is, if the roads and bridges and airports legislation–which Trump envisions as a $1 trillion, 10-year project–is funded by real dollars and not just tax credits, and without cutting other programs like health care and education.