Chicago police shooting looms over Rahm Emanuel’s confirmation as envoy to Japan

White House pushes back on criticism of Biden’s pick of former mayor to serve as ambassador, saying the US president’s ‘commitment to police reform speaks for itself’

Then-Chicago mayor Rahm Emanuel waves as he arrives at a news conference outside of the south air traffic control tower at O'Hare International Airport in Chicago, on April 22, 2019. (AP Photo/Kiichiro Sato, File)
Then-Chicago mayor Rahm Emanuel waves as he arrives at a news conference outside of the south air traffic control tower at O'Hare International Airport in Chicago, on April 22, 2019. (AP Photo/Kiichiro Sato, File)

WASHINGTON (AP) — The fatal police shooting of a Black teen in Chicago seven years ago is looming large over the city’s former mayor, Rahm Emanuel, as he looks to win confirmation as United States President Joe Biden’s ambassador to Japan.

Several liberal House lawmakers and activists complain that Emanuel’s handling of the death of 17-year-old Laquan McDonald, who was shot 16 times as he ran away from police, should have disqualified him for consideration for a coveted role. They see the nomination as out of sync with the values of an administration that says “comprehensive and meaningful police reform” is a priority.

Emanuel’s administration refused to make public police dash cam video of the killing for more than a year and not until being compelled to do so by a state court. He later apologized for his handling of the situation, which sparked weeks of mostly peaceful protests in the nation’s third-largest city after the video’s release.

Emanuel is set to appear before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on Wednesday for his confirmation hearing, which is occurring on the seventh anniversary of McDonald’s murder.

Emanuel’s reputation for sharp elbows — developed over nearly 40 years in national politics as a congressman and top adviser to former US presidents Bill Clinton and Barack Obama — is also part of the backdrop as he tries to demonstrate that he has the temperament for international diplomacy, particularly in protocol-conscious Japan.

White House press secretary Jen Psaki on Tuesday pushed back against the criticism, saying Biden’s “commitment to police reform speaks for itself.”

She added: “At the same time, he selects and has nominated a range of ambassadors to serve the United States overseas because of their qualifications, whether it’s from business, public service, or other reasons that would make them qualified for these positions.”

US House Illinois District 7 candidate Kina Collins speaks during a rally to protest former Chicago mayor Rahm Emanuel’s appointment as ambassador to Japan outside the Chicago Police Headquarters, on October 19, 2021, in Chicago. (AP Photo/Paul Beaty)

If confirmed, Emanuel, who is Jewish, will be Biden’s chief envoy to Japan at a moment when the two nations are looking to strengthen ties as their common adversary, China, has strengthened its position as an economic and national security competitor in the Pacific.

The White House is confident Emanuel will be confirmed by the Senate despite sharp criticism by several of the president’s allies in the party’s liberal wing of the House, whose members do not vote on confirmations.

Thus far, none of the Senate’s Democrats have publicly stated that they would vote against Emanuel. The White House also expects he will win support from several Senate Republicans, including some who served with him during his time in the House from 2003 and 2009.

Senator Bill Hagerty, a Republican from Tennessee who served as former US president Donald Trump’s ambassador to Tokyo, is slated to introduce Emanuel to the committee.

Among the Democrats most critical of Emanuel’s nomination are Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York, who called the pick “deeply shameful,” and Representative Cori Bush of Missouri, who has called on the Senate “to do the right thing and block his nomination.”

The head of the NAACP and a number of police reform activists have also spoken out against the nomination of Emanuel, who had also been in the running to be Biden’s transportation secretary.

The release of the McDonald video — which showed the teen repeatedly shot as he was running from police — led the city to make a series of changes in policies on police cameras, use of force and training. Months before the video’s release, the city agreed to pay a $5 million settlement to McDonald’s family.

Jason Van Dyke, the officer who shot McDonald 16 times, was convicted of second degree murder, 16 counts of aggravated assault and sentenced to six years and nine months in prison. The episode strained Emanuel’s relationship with the city’s sizable Black community.

Police Officer Jason Van Dyke (left) is taken into custody after jurors found him guilty of second-degree murder and aggravated battery in the 2014 shooting of black teenager Laquan McDonald, on October 5, 2018, at the Leighton Criminal Court Building in Chicago. (Antonio Perez/Chicago Tribune via AP, Pool)

Ahead of the hearing, eight Black members of Chicago’s City Council who were allies of Emanuel during his tenure and his former deputy mayor wrote to the Foreign Relations Committee, praising Emanuel for lengthening the day for the city’s public schools and taking other steps that benefited long-neglected Black neighborhoods.

Rev. Martin Hunter, the great uncle of McDonald, also wrote to the committee on Emanuel’s behalf, arguing that he had “inherited a deeply flawed system” on police investigations that tied his hands.

“There is more to this individual than the caricature that is presented in the public,” Hunter wrote in the letter, which was obtained by The Associated Press.

After leaving the mayor’s office, Emanuel was a fierce advocate for Biden’s successful White House run and served as a TV political analyst. He also made $13 million, the bulk from his work as a senior adviser to the investment banking firm Centerview Partners Advisory Holdings, according to financial disclosure documents.

Norman Solomon, national director of the liberal organization, said his group is helping coordinate a letter writing and phone call campaign urging lawmakers to vote against Emanuel’s nomination.

Solomon also slammed the top Democrat on the Foreign Relations Committee, Sen. Robert Menendez, for holding Emanuel’s confirmation hearing on the anniversary of McDonald’s killing, saying it demonstrates that many Democrats are in a “clueless bubble.”

Rev. Ira Acree, a civil rights activist in Chicago, said Biden’s decision to reward Emanuel with an ambassadorship was disappointing.

“What he did was commit an unpardonable political sin,” Acree said of Emanuel. “But the president and Democratic Party appears to want to reward him because of his clout, what they perceive to be his high political acumen and his extraordinary ability to raise money.”

Then-US vice president Joe Biden (right) looks on as then-Chicago mayor Rahm Emanuel points to the crowd after a ceremony celebrating the beginning of construction of the first domestic violence shelter in more than a decade in Chicago, on November 25, 2013. (AP Photo/Paul Beaty)

If confirmed, Emanuel would follow in a long line of prominent political figures who have been dispatched to Tokyo by both Democratic and Republican presidents. The list includes former US vice president Walter Mondale, former Senate majority leader Mike Mansfield, John F. Kennedy’s daughter Caroline Kennedy, and former US president Ronald Reagan’s chief of staff Howard Baker.

Diplomacy, however, hasn’t always been Emanuel’s strong suit. His old boss Obama acknowledged during Emanuel’s mayoral reelection campaign that he could sometimes come off as “a little hard headed.”

Emanuel once sent a dead fish to a pollster whose work he was unhappy with, and was legendary for his blunt — and often coarse — communication style.

Yuko Nakano, a Japan analyst at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, said that while Emanuel has limited foreign policy experience, Japanese officials are pleased that Biden wants to send someone with Emanuel’s profile to lead the Japan mission.

“His experience in the White House and Congress with the decision-making process is a very appealing aspect to the Japanese,” Nakano said. “Those qualifications outweigh him not being an expert on Japan, or even a foreign policy expert for that matter.”

read more:
Never miss breaking news on Israel
Get notifications to stay updated
You're subscribed