WASHINGTON – President-elect Donald Trump has chosen former Bush administration official Elaine Chao as his transportation secretary, a position that will take on outsized importance with Trump’s plan to spend billions rebuilding the nation’s infrastructure, a person with knowledge of the decision said Tuesday.
Chao, a former labor secretary and the wife of Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., would oversee the massive program Trump is planning to rebuild bridges, roads and other infrastructure. Trump’s campaign has said he wants to spend up to $1 trillion, though the specifics are unclear, as is whether congressional Republicans would support the initiative.
Chao served as labor secretary during President George W. Bush’s entire eight-year administration and was the first Asian American Cabinet member in U.S. history. If confirmed by the Senate, she would add diversity to a Trump inner circle initially criticized as consisting of mostly older white men.
Transition team officials would not comment on Chao, though senior Trump communications adviser Jason Miller told Fox Business Network on Tuesday that Trump’s transportation secretary nominee would come later in the day. The news of Chao’s nomination was first reported by Politico.
It came after Trump’s team announced that he will take a break from transition planning, if briefly, to resume the occasionally raucous campaign-style rallies that marked his outsider bid for the White House. Trump and Vice President-elect Mike Pence have scheduled a rally in Cincinnati Thursday night, part of what Trump aides are billing as a “thank you” tour. It is unclear where else the duo might hold similar events.
Yet Trump was also working to form his government. Earlier Tuesday, he chose Rep. Tom Price, R-Ga., a fierce critic of the Affordable Care Act and a proponent of overhauling the nation’s entitlement programs, to lead the Department of Health and Human Services.
In naming Chao, who has also served as deputy transportation secretary and has been married to McConnell since 1993, Trump turned to a consummate Washington insider after campaigning on a vow to bring change to Washington.
Since leaving the Bush administration, Chao has served as a fellow at the Heritage Foundation and a contributor to Fox News. She is also a former chief executive of the United Way of America, director of the Peace Corps and banker with Citicorp in New York.
The Price nomination came in a news release early Tuessday that lavished praise on him, a third-generation doctor who chairs the House Budget Committee and became a champion of Trump’s candidacy. In naming him to join his Cabinet, the president-elect called Price “exceptionally qualified to shepherd our commitment to repeal and replace Obamacare and bring affordable and accessible health care to every American.”
Trump also named Seema Verma, a health-care consultant who was the architect of Medicaid changes in Vice President-elect Mike Pence’s home state of Indiana, to run a crucial section of HHS: the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services.
As HHS secretary, Price would be the nation’s top health official and the incoming administration’s point person for dismantling the sprawling 2010 health-care law, which Trump promised during his campaign to start dismantling on his first day in the Oval Office. The 62-year-old lawmaker, who represents a wealthy suburban Atlanta district, has played a leading role in Republican opposition to the law and has helped draft several comprehensive bills to replace it. The GOP-led House has voted five dozen times to eliminate all or part of the ACA but has never had a chance to accomplish its goal as long as President Obama has been in the White House.
As many Republicans, including House Speaker Paul D. Ryan of Wisconsin, wavered in their attitudes toward Trump during his campaign, Price was a devoted foot soldier. In May, he organized a joint statement by nine GOP House committee chairs, pledging loyalty to Trump and calling on “all Americans to support him.”
Ryan said in a tweet Tuesday morning that Price “has made health care his life’s work. He is the absolute perfect choice for HHS Secretary.”
A former chairman of the conservative Republican study committee, Price has been affiliated with the House tea party caucus and has lambasted what he termed a “vile liberal agenda that is threatening everything we hold dear as Americans.” His congressional website describes him as “devoted to limited government and lower spending.”
His selection drew an immediate rebuke from the Senate’s incoming minority leader, Sen. Charles Schumer, D-N.Y. “Congressman Price has proven to be far out of the mainstream of what Americans want when it comes to Medicare, the Affordable Care Act, and Planned Parenthood,” Schumer said in a statement. “Thanks to those three programs, millions of American seniors, families, people with disabilities and women have access to quality, affordable health care. Nominating Congressman Price to be the HHS secretary is akin to asking the fox to guard the hen house.”
House Republicans have had a far more detailed plan than Trump for reconfiguring the nation’s health-care system along conservative lines. Earlier this year, Price suggested that a Trump presidency would advance the House GOP health-care agenda. “When I talk to people who work closely with Trump, what they tell me is that behind closed doors he’s one of the best listeners they’ve ever worked for or with in their life,” Price said in an interview in the spring. “Which is kind of counterintuitive, given what some of his public persona is.”
During the campaign, Trump railed against the Affordable Care Act and vowed to repeal and replace it. He has even said he would summon Congress to a special session to do so. Since his election, he has been less explicit about his intended timing.
One of the 18 members of the House GOP Doctors Caucus, Price supports major changes to Medicaid and Medicare, health insurance pillars of the Great Society programs of the 1960s. Under his vision, both programs would cease to be entitlements that require them to provide coverage to every person who qualifies. Instead, like many House Republicans, he wants to convert Medicaid into block grants to states – which would give them more latitude from federal requirements about eligibility rules and the medical services that must be covered for low-income Americans. This plan would also require “able-bodied” applicants to meet work requirements to receive health-care benefits – an idea that the Obama administration has consistently rebuffed.
Some outside groups and watchdogs have warned that such proposals probably would lead to deep cuts for those who use the program. The nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office has estimated that at least 14 million people would lose coverage if Congress revokes the Medicaid expansion that has occurred under the ACA.
For Medicare, Price favors another idea long pushed by conservatives, switching it from a “defined benefit” to a “defined contribution.” With that, the government would give older or disabled Americans financial help to buy private insurance policies.
Price is a six-term member of the House and became the Budget Committee’s chairman in 2015. He previously was a member of the Georgia state Senate and, when Republicans took control of that chamber, became its majority leader. Before entering politics, he was an orthopedic surgeon and taught at the Emory School of Medicine. He is a native of Michigan.
Price has not had executive experience or run an agency. HHS is a sprawling department with a $1 trillion budget. Its Medicare and Medicaid programs affect more than 100 million Americans young and old. It regulates the nation’s food and drugs. Through the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, it runs public health programs that reach into every state and around the world. It is an engine of biomedical research through the National Institutes of Health.
In choosing Price to fill a key Cabinet position, Trump will add to his team a staunchly conservative lawmaker close to the House speaker. Price already is familiar with the budget process, the federal bureaucracy, and the costs and mechanics of changing the Affordable Care Act as well as revamping the Medicare entitlement program.
As word of his selection surfaced Monday night, former House speaker Newt Gingrich, R-Ga., was among the first to send a tweet: “Congressman Tom Price will be a great Secretary of Health and Human Services. He is the right leader to help Congress replace Obamacare.”
In the news release about his selection, Price said he was “humbled by the incredible challenges that lay ahead,” but he steered clear of mentioning any of his specific beliefs about how the health-care system should be changed, speaking in more generic terms. “There is much work,” he said, “to be done to ensure we have a healthcare system that works for patients, families, and doctors; that leads the world in the cure and prevention of illness; and that is based on sensible rules to protect the well-being of the country while embracing its innovative spirit.”
Kelsey Snell contributed to this report.