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Elaine Chao’s next act

Thought Leader: Elaine Chao
June 21, 2022
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President JOE BIDEN earlier this month signed a bill laying the foundation for the creation of a national museum of Asian Americans.

The project still has to go through a number of steps. But should it be greenlit by Congress, as expected, a well-known Republican figure and former Trump administration official is poised to play a key role in its launch.

West Wing Playbook has learned that former Secretary of Transportation ELAINE CHAO is set to join the board of the Smithsonian’s Asian Pacific American Center. APAC is the institution’s emerging hub for learning and study of Asian Americans and would likely help shape the future of the national museum.

In a statement, APAC advisory board chair DEBBIE SHON confirmed the news, saying the organization was “honored to have Secretary Chao join the APAC Board.” The statement went on to note that while Shon was a longtime Democrat who worked in BILL CLINTON’s administration, she respected Chao professionally and recognized the need to bring prominent Republicans on board in order to increase its influence in Washington.

“She will bring fresh insights, wisdom, and sage counsel as we bring our communities together in pursuit of equality, equity and our place on the Mall and in American history books and current culture,” she said in a separate message on Monday.

At the moment, APAC is a largely events and digital-focused arm of the Smithsonian, putting on community functions across the country and sharing digital content focused on highlighting arts, culture, and history of the diverse Asian and Pacific Islander communities in the U.S.

But the appointment of Chao, the wife of Senate Minority Leader MITCH McCONNELL and the highest-ranking Asian American woman in U.S. government history before KAMALA HARRIS assumed the vice presidency, signals potential grander bipartisan vision for the group. Shon agreed to help lead APAC’s board several years ago when she learned there were no permanent exhibits at the institution that recognized the struggles or contributions of Asian Americans. She proceeded to recruit well-known Asian American figures from different fields to shape the Smithsonian’s direction, including adding CEO and The Ankler founder JANICE MIN, Hyphen Cap founder DAVE LU, and Meta’s ERIC TODA to the board.

Chao’s appointment comes at a time when former Trump cabinet members are under an intensifying microscope due to the Jan. 6 committee proceedings. Chao resigned from her post after the insurrection.

It also comes at a moment when many prominent Asian Americans in Washington have been advocating for a dedicated museum around the National Mall similar to the National Museum of African American History and Culture, which opened in 2016, and the National Museum of the American Latino, which is currently in the planning stages.

Officially, APAC and the Smithsonian won’t be involved in the creation of a museum until a museum study commission finishes its work and authorizes the project. A spokesperson for the Smithsonian pointed out that the organization will “serve in an advisory capacity or as content experts,” if asked, but “as of now, we have not been asked to do so.”

But ultimately, if the museum is created, Chao and other prominent APAC figures could have a strong say in its vision and direction. The actual language of the law Biden signed says the Smithsonian Institution will play a consulting role in developing “criteria for evaluating possible locations for the Museum in Washington, DC.” It also calls for exploring the “feasibility of the Museum becoming part of the Smithsonian Institution, taking into account the Museum’s potential impact on the Smithsonian’s existing facilities maintenance backlog, collections storage needs, and identified construction or renovation costs for new or existing museums.”

When reached for comment, Shon said APAC is “anxiously awaiting next steps as the commission unfolds,” and says the group is prepared to “facilitate these conversations and provide the research necessary.”

The museum bill signing represented the Biden administration’s recent efforts to speak more to Asians in the country. In recent months, Harris has held multiple public speaking events aimed at discussing the value of various AAPI cultures and histories in America, and earlier this month, the president welcomed Korean pop group BTS to the White House to raise awareness for violence against Asians. BTS subsequently broke up or took a hiatus, depending on how you interpret it.

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