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The Old School Grift of Mitch McConnell and Elaine Chao

Trump-era grifting is unique in its shamelessness. McConnell and his wife harken back to a simpler (and more enduring) time.
June 11, 2019
The Old School Grift of Mitch McConnell and Elaine Chao
Elaine Chao and her husband, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell. (Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)

In the Trump era, we’ve become accustomed to political grift looking a certain way: goofy, cartoonish, and almost entirely shameless. The president who swept into Washington full of promises to “drain the swamp” has instead helped a whole rogue’s gallery of boosters, fans, and hangers-on into the public eye: gormless Cabinet officials fibbing about their travel plans to take their wives on taxpayer-funded sightseeing jaunts through Europe, bungling wannabe shakers launching braindead scheme after braindead scheme to destroy the president’s foes, media sycophants battling one another to see who can praise Trump’s every move with the loudest and most breathless superlatives.

The misdeeds of the new corruption class are so over the top that it can be easy to forget that political grift is as old as political power itself.

A good reminder of this turned up Monday in Politico, in the form of a report about the office of Secretary of Transportation Elaine Chao. According to Politico, Chao has designated a special liaison for greasing the wheels of transportation grant applications to the state of Kentucky—the very state of which her husband, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, happens to be the senior senator.

Politico reports:

Chao’s aide Todd Inman, who stated in an email to McConnell’s Senate office that Chao had personally asked him to serve as an intermediary, helped advise the senator and local Kentucky officials on grants with special significance for McConnell—including a highway-improvement project in a McConnell political stronghold that had been twice rejected for previous grant applications.

The piece contains a few real gems, like quotes from local leaders happy to dish on how grateful they are to McConnell and Chao for helping to bring home the bacon. “Todd probably smoothed his way, I mean, you know, used his influence,” Al Mattingly, chief executive of Daviess County, told Politico.

“Well, let’s put it this way: I only have her ear an hour when I go to visit her once a year,” he added. “With a local guy, he has her ear 24 hours a day, seven days a week. You tell me.”

On the scale of political transgressions, this is admittedly pretty tame stuff—ranking somewhat below, say, the petty grandeur of using your political position to help your wife score a Chick Fil-A franchise. After all, that federal money’s going somewhere, so why not Kentucky? An unnamed former official “who was involved in the grant review process under multiple administrations” even came to the McConnells’ partial defense, telling Politico that the federal grant feeding frenzy is “always going to be political” and “we have a merit-based process that we essentially ignore.” (At least he had the grace to call that fact “really detrimental.”) But it’s hard to deny there’s a special spice to the thought of Elaine and Mitch hashing out the details of federal spending projects at the dinner table.

The kind of grift Trumpworld traffics in is explosive and outrageous, creaking under the weight of its own shamelessness. For all those reasons, it’s also likely not to outstay its equally outrageous and shameless presidential lodestar. McConnell-style grift is a horse of a different color: quiet, unassuming, boring, built to last.

Andrew Egger

Andrew Egger was a senior writer at The Bulwark.