About a month before the 2022 midterm elections, Donald Trump went after Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell in an unusually ugly way, suggesting the Republican lawmaker “has a DEATH WISH” for legislating in ways the former president didn’t like.
But Trump didn’t stop there. In the same online missive, he thought some racism would help his case. McConnell “must immediately seek help and advise [sic] from his China loving wife, Coco Chow!” the Republican added, referring to Elaine Chao.
In other words, the former president not only raised the specter of political violence against his own party’s Senate leader, he also published a racist message against the senator’s wife, who happens to have served in Trump’s cabinet as transportation secretary.
Ever since, he’s repeatedly targeted his former cabinet secretary, whom he now routinely derides as “Coco Chow,” suggesting he finds juvenile racism entertaining. This week, the former president went so far as to publish another item that read, “Does Coco Chow have anything to do with Joe Biden’s Classified Documents being sent and stored in Chinatown? Her husband, the Old Broken Crow, is VERY close to Biden, the Democrats, and, of course, China.”
It’s difficult to say why, exactly, Trump has been so preoccupied with taunting and trying to smear Chao. Maybe he’s trying to upset McConnell. Maybe he’s trying to stoke anti-Asian animus. Maybe he holds a grudge against Chao for having resigned in the aftermath of the Jan. 6 attack. Maybe the former president wants to remind the public that he ends up hating many of the people he hired for his own administration.
Whatever the motivation, the former transportation secretary has noticed the ugly derision, and she’s apparently tired of it. Politico reported:
“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.”
It’s important to emphasize that Chao is, of course, entirely right. Like far too many, she’s had to endure overt racism, and it’s awful that the latest incident is coming from her former boss and her party’s former president. The former cabinet secretary is also right that Trump is trying to undermine Chao, but whether he understands this or not, he’s actually making himself appear worse.
Stepping back, there’s also a larger context to all of this.
Chao is a longtime Republican insider in the nation’s capital, having served in different capacities in four different GOP administrations, and she’s known for exercising caution before wading into contentious political disputes. As Politico’s report added, “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.”
But just as important, if not more so, is the fact that someone in Republican politics is pushing back against the former president’s anti-Asian rhetoric. When Trump first started his offensive against Chao, then-Rep. Liz Cheney was willing to condemn what she described as “despicable” racism, but the Wyoming congresswoman stood largely alone among prominent GOP voices.
The vast majority of Republicans simply chose to look the other way. When Sen. Rick Scott was asked about this in the fall, the Floridian dismissed the rhetoric as unimportant, telling CNN that Trump simply “likes to give people nicknames.”
Did he and other Republicans fear the former president’s wrath? Were they simply indifferent to Trump’s anti-Asian racism? Perhaps they were reluctant to amplify their leader’s ugliness?
Whatever the rationale, Chao’s on-the-record criticisms yesterday offer the GOP a fresh opportunity to finally do the right thing. The question for Republican officials is simple: Do they agree with Elaine Chao or not?