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Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao on Thursday resigned, leaving little in the way of a legacy behind after a long career in several Republican administrations. She is the first cabinet secretary in the Trump administration to resign in the wake of the pro-Trump riot in Washington, D.C. on Wednesday.
Citing the “traumatic and entirely avoidable” events at the Capitol in a message to Department of Transportation staff on Thursday, Chao said she will step down effective Monday, January 11. She promised to help with the transition to Pete Buttigieg, whom President-elect Joe Biden has nominated to lead the department.
It has been the honor of a lifetime to serve the U.S. Department of Transportation. pic.twitter.com/rFxPsBoh6t
— Sec. Elaine Chao (@SecElaineChao) January 7, 2021
Chao’s departure follows decades of public service in Republican administrations. Prior to her appointment as Trump’s secretary of transportation in 2017, she served as Labor Secretary for eight years under President George W. Bush, and deputy secretary of transportation for two years under president George H. W. Bush.
In addition, she is married to outgoing Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.).
However, Chao is likely to be remembered for her lack of action to protect travelers and staff during the coronavirus pandemic. The Department of Transportation failed to heed calls by airlines, unions and even public health officials for mandatory mask rules onboard planes, trains and other interstate transportation.
Airlines have implemented their own rules but, without federal backing, they can only threaten to ban flyers from flights after violations. In addition, staff face an unrelenting challenge enforcing mask rules. Since March, safety incident reports filed with the Federal Aviation Administration show repeated and flagrant violations of mask rules by travelers, including yelling obscenities at flight crews.
Chao leaves with few other accomplishments to show for her four years at the head of the department. During her tenure, the Transportation Department rolled back consumer advertising rules for airlines and established definitive rules on what constitutes a service animal.
In addition, Chao failed to achieve a long-sought overhaul of the nation’s air traffic control system, widely known as NextGen. This came despite early indications that she and President Trump backed the establishment of a “self-financing, non-profit organization” to take over and modernize U.S. air traffic control.
On the ground, the DOT under Chao obstructed numerous projects and initiatives in major American cities. A planned congestion pricing scheme covering much of Manhattan has been held up pending DOT approval and the agency delayed distributing grants allocated by Congress to transit projects in communities around the country during her first two years in the job.
Chao’s departure also comes amid calls on Capitol Hill for Vice President Mike Pence and the cabinet to invoke the 25th amendment. This would effectively remove President Trump from power for his last two weeks in office.