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Seven years to the day after the murder of a Black teenager by a white Chicago police officer, the man accused of helping cover up critical evidence of the crime told the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations that his past actions shouldn’t disqualify him from being the next U.S. ambassador to Japan.
Rahm Emanuel, a former congressman, White House chief of staff, and two-term mayor of Chicago, told senators on Wednesday that “there’s not a day or a week that has gone by in the past seven years and not thought about this and thought about the what-ifs” of the murder of Laquan McDonald and its aftermath—but said that while he “clearly missed the level of distrust and skepticism that existed” from Black Chicagoans, he has since earned the support of civil rights organizations and a relative of McDonald’s, all of whom can speak “to my person and my character.”
“It doesn’t take away from the fact that a grave tragedy occurred,” Emanuel said gravely, “and that tragedy sits with me.”
Emanuel’s inclusion in President Joe Biden’s slate of political nominees to key U.S. ambassadorships abroad has rankled civil rights leaders, progressive Democrats, and Chicago activists, who say that the former mayor’s actions in the aftermath of McDonald’s murder are incompatible with a prestigious diplomatic posting.
“For 400 days, Rahm Emanuel tried to cover up the truth of what happened to Laquan McDonald,” Kina Collins, a progressive Chicago congressional candidate, said in a statement ahead of the hearing that was signed by more than 20 civil rights leaders and relatives of victims of police brutality. “For 400 days we marched, organized, and protested for the release of the police dashcam footage, because we know that too often, police lie when their own careers are at stake. And for 400 days, that officer escaped justice, because Emanuel was more concerned with his own re-election than he was with justice for a child murdered on his watch. This is a complete slap in the face to Black America.”
In the letter, Chicago-area activists urged that the nomination be withdrawn and demanded that senators force Emanuel “to answer for his egregious actions.”
“Chicagoans deserve answers. Black Americans from across the country deserve answers. You, as senators tasked with advising and consenting the president in this nomination, deserve answers,” the letter stated.
As a former chief of staff under President Barack Obama, Emanuel enjoys a close personal relationship with Biden and has already garnered statements of public support from several Republican senators, including Sen. Bill Hagerty (R-TN), who introduced Emanuel to the committee on Wednesday.
“I welcome him today and I intend to provide him with the bipartisan support that I was fortunate to receive from this committee,” Hagerty, a conservative Republican and himself a former U.S. ambassador to Japan, told his colleagues, calling Emanuel “a qualified and capable nominee” deserving of appointment to a critical post.
Emanuel has also secured the support of several other Republican senators, including Sens. Lindsey Graham (R-SC) and Susan Collins (R-ME), a sea wall of support for his nomination in the face of silence from progressive members of the Democratic caucus like Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) and Bernie Sanders (D-VT), whose long-standing feud with Emanuel has never been publicly resolved.
Some of the more progressive members of the committee were not so readily convinced by Emanuel’s initial statement on McDonald’s death. Sen. Jeff Merkley (D-OR) pressed Emanuel on the city’s decision to force McDonald’s family to sign a non-disclosure agreement in order to see the dashboard footage of his murder, which he called “a pretty significant decision,” and one that indicated Emanuel’s office potentially knew more about the circumstances of the shooting than it let on.
But the lion’s share of the progressive push against Emanuel has been led by members of the House of Representatives, including Reps. Jamaal Bowman (D-NY), Cori Bush (D-MO), and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY), who have waged a quiet battle to undermine the nomination after having spoken out forcefully against Emanuel’s potential nomination to lead a cabinet department earlier this year. In November 2020, Ocasio-Cortez summed up the progressive case against Emanuel in a tweet: “Covering up a murder is disqualifying for public leadership.”
Sen. Bob Menendez (D-NJ), the committee’s chairman, noted in his opening remarks that Emanuel’s hearing took place on the anniversary of McDonald’s murder, and stated that “certainly, we will give you an opportunity to speak to that in the course of this hearing.”
Emanuel made no mention of McDonald’s murder in his initial opening remarks, although he did highlight his own mother’s work integrating Chicago’s beaches in the 1960s.
Even supporters of Emanuel’s nomination had been increasingly anxious about his performance before the committee in the days leading up to Wednesday’s hearing. The former mayor, who in recent weeks has been attending in-person “ambassador boot camp” training alongside other political and career nominees, has participated in at least three murder board sessions in the days leading up to the hearing, according to sources familiar with his preparation. The same sources told The Daily Beast that some State Department officials were concerned that Emanuel was not as prepared for a potential grilling by committee members as he needed to be, both on his tenure as Chicago mayor and on issues relating to the U.S. relationship with Japan.
Emanuel, who has cut a controversial and, considering the nature of his potential position, undiplomatic path in Democratic politics, enjoys a close relationship with many of the party’s most senior members, including Biden himself. But his tenure as mayor of Chicago was marked by a series of scandals over education, cronyism, and public safety, the last of which was typified by McDonald’s murder and its aftermath.
The murder of McDonald, a 17-year-old boy who was shot 16 times by a Chicago police officer while walking away from the police, inspired protests across the country after dashcam footage of the incident proved that police had lied about the circumstances that preceded his shooting. Emanuel was later accused of orchestrating a coverup of the footage, which was only released after the conclusion of his reelection campaign, to benefit his own career.
The White House has defended Emanuel’s nomination in the face of progressive anger. Asked on Tuesday about his upcoming testimony, White House press secretary Jen Psaki told reporters that Emanuel has “a record of public service” and that Biden continues to feel that the former mayor would “best represent the United States in Japan.”
“The president’s record [and] commitment to police reform speaks for itself,” Psaki said. “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 qualify for these positions.”