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Corporate America isn’t welcoming former Trump Cabinet officials with open arms, headhunters say

Elaine Chao, who was secretary of transportation in the Trump administration, has a history of serving on top corporate boards. But not all would welcome her back.
Elaine Chao, who was secretary of transportation in the Trump administration, has a history of serving on top corporate boards. But not all would welcome her back.Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post

Before she joined the Trump administration as transportation secretary, Elaine Chao earned millions of dollars over a decade by serving on the boards of big public companies such as Dole Foods, Protective Life, and Wells Fargo, according to corporate filings.

She offered sterling credentials to businesses eager to keep current with the Republican leadership: A former banking executive, she became the first Asian American woman to serve in a Cabinet when President George W. Bush tapped her to serve as labor secretary. She has been a regular at conservative think tanks, including the Heritage Foundation and the Hudson Institute. Her husband is Senate minority leader Mitch McConnell, Republican of Kentucky.

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But now Chao is encountering a fraught reentry into the private sector.

Headhunters who have sought similarly prominent work for Chao have found little interest, according to two headhunters she has consulted personally. The headhunters, speaking on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitive nature of the discussions, said top executives wary of backlash from associating with former Trump officials are boiling down Chao’s four-decade Washington résumé to its most recent entry — longstanding ally of Donald Trump — despite her resignation the day after the Jan. 6 attack on the Capitol.

One of the headhunters said his team surveyed some companies about their interest in Chao and didn’t find any takers. ’'The feedback was ‘It’s too soon,’ ’' this person said.

But while it is clear that Chao’s reentry is more difficult than in the past, a person close to her says she has not been entirely shut out of the corporate world.

’'She’s evaluating a number of invitations to join various corporate boards while helping former colleagues land, as well,’' this person said. ’'She’s interested in new-economy companies, has already accepted board positions, and is currently in various stages of finalizing agreements with them and others.’'

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Chao declined to comment.

While the small numbers make comparisons difficult, corporations don’t seem to have an immediate interest in other top Trump administration alums, either. Roughly half of the S&P 500 companies have filed their 2021 investor disclosure reports, listing a total of 108 new or prospective board members, according to data from Insightia, which provides information to shareholders. No Trump Cabinet officials who served in the final quarter of his term are among those nominated.

By this point in 2009, four major companies had lined up alums of George W. Bush’s Cabinet to serve as directors: global power company AES, oil and gas company Hess, chemical maker FMC, and United Technologies, the industrial conglomerate that has since merged with Raytheon.

Headhunters and other corporate advisers say the calculus for executives at most large, publicly traded companies is simple. Trump — the only president to be impeached twice, the second time on a charge he incited the mob that assaulted the Capitol in an attempt to overturn the presidential election results — left office with a majority of Americans strongly disapproving of his job performance. He remains a lightning rod for controversy and faces ongoing legal exposure from civil lawsuits and criminal investigations. Offering a board seat to anyone in his inner orbit risks inviting a revolt from customers, employees, or shareholders.

’'Boards don’t need trouble or criticism,’' one headhunter said. ’'If you want to stay away from all that potential tarnish, that’s easy: You just don’t go near it.’'

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With Democrats in control of the White House and both chambers of Congress, companies are on the hunt in Washington for help with the new party in power. That is depressing demand for Republicans broadly, including those coming off Capitol Hill, top lobbyists say.

For example, Wells Fargo is still operating under a federal cap on its growth following its consumer abuses. Chao joined its board in 2011 and earned handsome pay for her work there until she resigned in early 2017. In 2016 alone, she pulled in $312,000 in cash and stock, and she collected between $1 million and $5 million in deferred stock options that paid out through this year, federal filings show.

The bank did not include Chao among the nominees for its board that shareholders will approve at its spring meeting.

The three other companies on whose boards Chao sat most recently — Ingersoll-Rand, News Corp., and Vulcan Materials — all declined to comment on whether she would be welcomed back.

Chao may not be alone. William P. Barr was a fixture on elite corporate boards before a tumultuous two-year stint as the second US attorney general in the Trump era. Critics say he used the post to act as the president’s personal counsel rather than the nation’s top law enforcement officer. Thousands of former Justice Department officials called on him to resign in open letters, a step he took in December after his relationship with Trump soured. Barr defended his moves on Trump’s behalf in high-profile cases, arguing his interventions were justified on the merits.

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What he wants to do next with his career is unclear. Barr declined to comment. But he’s unlikely to return to at least one of his former employers. Kirkland & Ellis, the firm where Barr practiced before joining the administration, has no plans to rehire him, said a person familiar with the firm, requesting anonymity to discuss private deliberations.

And the three companies for which he served as a director before joining the administration — Dominion Energy; Sculptor Capital, the hedge fund formerly known as Ochs-Ziff; and Time Warner, which has since merged with AT&T — declined to comment.

Barr, who earned a $10.4 million retirement payout from Verizon after stepping down as the telecom giant’s general counsel in 2010, collected $877,000 in cash and stock for board work in 2017 alone, corporate filings show.