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CHICAGO — Former Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel both defended and expressed regret over his handling of the police shooting of Laquan McDonald under questioning from senators during a confirmation hearing Wednesday on his nomination as U.S. ambassador to Japan.
On the seventh anniversary of McDonald’s murder at the hands of a Chicago police officer, Emanuel said he should have better recognized the lack of trust citizens held for the Chicago Police Department and pushed for stronger reforms more quickly.
The former two-term mayor, however, did not specify what he would have done differently in his response to the McDonald shooting. Emanuel also sidestepped questions about when he learned specifics about the severity of the incident that left the 17-year-old Black teenager dead on a Southwest Side street after being shot 16 times.
“Seven years ago, a young man had his life taken on the street in the city of Chicago. He had all the promise ahead of him and a police officer took his life, killed him,” Emanuel said. “I said then, ‘I’m the mayor and I’m responsible and accountable for fixing this so this never happens again.’ And to be honest, there is not a day or week that has gone by in the last seven years I haven’t thought about this and the what-ifs and the changes and what could have been.”
Though he has been out of office for more than two years, Emanuel has faced sustained criticism for his administration’s resistance to releasing police dashcam video of the shooting and its decision to approve a prompt $5 million settlement for McDonald’s family. Emanuel repeatedly has denied that he or his administration engaged in a cover-up, and he reiterated that stance at Wednesday’s hearing.
After lamenting the loss of McDonald’s life, Emanuel defended his administration’s decision not to release the video while the shooting was under investigation by the FBI, U.S. attorney, Cook County state’s attorney and local police oversight officials.
Emanuel acknowledged his efforts to avoid jeopardizing an ongoing investigation by prematurely releasing evidence run “headlong into another very important value, and that is the deep suspicion, distrust and skepticism that exists in the community of the authorities investigating the authorities and getting to the bottom of what happened.”
He said the longer an investigation takes, the more skepticism grows that it’s really “a whitewash, a cover-up.”
“My view is the last person you want to make a unilateral decision about the release of the video while the FBI, the U.S. attorney and the state’s attorney ... are investigating, is a politician,” Emanuel said. “It should be made by professionals. The moment a politician unilaterally makes a decision in the middle of an investigation, you’ve politicized that investigation and more importantly, you may have endangered the prosecution and bringing somebody to justice.”
Amid the fallout of McDonald’s killing, Emanuel pursued a number of reforms, including a policy that requires the Civilian Office of Police Accountability to release footage of a police shooting within 60 days of the incident with the allowance for one 30-day extension at the request of law enforcement officials. The former mayor also created policies requiring officers to wear body cameras and carry Tasers while bolstering training and providing better mental health treatment for cops.
During the hearing, Emanuel said he should have pushed for more meaningful reforms during his first term, prior to McDonald’s death. Emanuel said he thought actions he took early in his tenure to reform the department were enough, but in retrospect, “they were inadequate to the level of distrust.”
“They were, at best, marginal,” Emanuel said. “I thought I was addressing the issue, and I clearly missed the level of distrust and skepticism that existed. And that’s on me.”
However, even after McDonald’s death, Emanuel tried to back out of a commitment to a federal consent decree to force reforms to the Police Department, instead attempting to strike an out-of-court agreement with then-Republican President Donald Trump’s administration. The Illinois attorney general at the time, Lisa Madigan, eventually sued the city and forced Emanuel’s hand, with the mayor ultimately agreeing to a consent decree under which a federal judge oversees reforms.
Democratic Sen. Tim Kaine of Virginia expressed sympathy for Emanuel, noting that as mayor of Richmond he learned of the deep distrust Black residents had of the Police Department.
“Every day in cities, beautiful things happen and tragic things happen, and that’s the case in any city,” Kaine said. “And you can’t be a mayor in any city, especially a city like Chicago, without picking up some scar tissue along the way.”
Progressive Democratic Sen. Jeff Merkley of Oregon was less hospitable, using his five minutes of questioning to press Emanuel about when he learned details of McDonald’s death. What exactly Emanuel knew about McDonald’s death and when he knew it has remained murky, though a 2016 Chicago Tribune investigation found Emanuel’s top aides knew details of the shooting months before the mayor said he became aware of them.
Merkley revealed that Emanuel told him in private conversations leading up to the hearing that much of the former mayor’s initial reaction to the shooting was guided by police leaders telling him it was a “good shooting.” The senator twice pressed Emanuel on whether that opinion came from an “official police review board.” Emanuel said that at the time, the department’s top leaders typically reviewed a police shooting the following morning.
Merkley also noted Emanuel’s previous public statements that he did not watch the video of the October 2014 shooting until it was released in November 2015. The senator pressed the former mayor on if he learned the true extent of the shooting in November of 2014 when attorneys for McDonald’s family first sought to view the shooting video.
“When the video became public is when I learned what happened and the consequences of that night,” Emanuel replied.
Merkley then noted the McDonald family viewed the video in December 2014 and asked whether Emanuel knew by then that McDonald had been shot 16 times. He asked if Emanuel knew McDonald had been shot while on the ground, or that Officer Jason Van Dyke, who was later convicted of second-degree murder and sentenced to more than six years in prison, had started reloading his weapon after emptying its clip.
Emanuel did not directly answer, saying instead that details of the shooting “were in the public domain” in the spring of 2015 when the City Council voted 50-0 to approve the $5 million settlement for McDonald’s family.
Merkley sought to continue pressing Emanuel for details on when he was briefed about the shooting but Senate Foreign Relations Chairman Bob Menendez cut him off, noting he had gone four minutes over his time.
Merkley concluded by telling Emanuel that once the McDonald family had requested to see the video and received a settlement, “It seems hard to believe that all those things happened and yet you were never briefed on the details of the situation when you were leading the city.”
The Oregon senator also noted a letter from progressive aldermen and state lawmakers in Chicago urging the committee to reject Emanuel’s nomination. “Rahm Emanuel’s actions as mayor were emblematic of the systemic racism that continues to plague our city, our state and our country,” nine aldermen and four other lawmakers wrote to the committee.
Emanuel responded by noting he had the support of nine Black aldermen, community leaders and the backing of the Rev. Marvin Hunter, McDonald’s great uncle.
Emanuel said he has prayed with Hunter and discussed what they would fix with the nation’s criminal justice system if they could “wave a magic wand.” Hunter declined to comment Wednesday, but has scheduled a Thursday news conference to discuss Emanuel’s nomination.
“There is more to this individual than the caricature that is presented in the public,” Hunter wrote about Emanuel in his letter to the committee. “I felt what is in his heart, and I know him to be a decent and honorable man who is willing to listen, eager to learn and show a deep level of compassion.”
Emanuel told the committee that Hunter’s support spoke to “my person and my character, not just my professional abilities.”
“That doesn’t take away from the fact that a grave tragedy occurred seven years ago,” Emanuel said in concluding his remarks on McDonald. “And that tragedy sits with me, as it has, every day and every week, for the last seven years.”
The White House has expressed “very strong confidence” Emanuel will be confirmed. A vote by the Senate Foreign Relations Committee is expected in a couple of weeks. Emanuel’s confirmation, along with a package of other ambassador appointments, then would move to a vote before the full Senate, which is split 50-50 between Republicans and Democrats.
Some high-profile progressive Democrats in the U.S. House have expressed opposition to Emanuel’s appointment, including Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York who has called it “deeply shameful.”
“Laquan McDonald should be alive today. Instead, on the anniversary of his death, the man who helped cover up his murder is being considered for an ambassadorship,” U.S. Rep. Mondaire Jones of New York tweeted Wednesday. “Rahm Emanuel has no business representing the United States.”
While no Senate Democrats have said they would oppose Emanuel’s confirmation, many have yet to say how they will vote, including progressive stalwart Bernie Sanders of Vermont.
If a handful of Democrats vote against Emanuel, that is likely to be outweighed by Emanuel’s support among Republicans, White House sources have said. Four Senate Republicans have backed Emanuel’s nomination, including Sen. Bill Hagerty of Tennessee, who introduced Emanuel before the committee Wednesday.
Hagerty, who was ambassador to Japan under former President Donald Trump, has supported few Biden political appointments. But he said he intended to provide Emanuel with “the bipartisan support that I was fortunate to receive in this committee. A critical post like this deserves no less from a qualified and capable nominee.”
Also introducing Emanuel was Illinois’ senior senator, Dick Durbin, who said the former mayor “delivered a legacy we still enjoy in the city of Chicago and state of Illinois today.”
He emphasized Emanuel’s efforts to expand the public school day and school year, institute full-day kindergarten, improve the city’s transportation system and build the city’s downtown Riverwalk.
“I can tell you what is obvious, he is bright, energetic and focused,” Durbin said of Emanuel. “Any mayor who can cobble together a budget in the Chicago City Council is ready for major league diplomacy.”
Most of the hearing focused on U.S. relations with Japan, and Emanuel emphasized the importance of strengthening that bond amid heightened economic and military ambitions from China in the region.
Emanuel touted his travel to Japan as mayor and his work with international mayors on climate change as experience that has prepared him for an ambassadorship. The former mayor told the committee that after his trip to Tokyo, the governor there signed onto the Chicago Climate Charter municipal agreement he created and two Japanese companies, DMG Mori and Beam Suntory, relocated offices to Chicago.
Emanuel’s 44-member delegation for that 2018 trade trip to Japan and China was made up mostly of business heavyweights, including donors with ties to nearly $2 million in contributions to Emanuel’s campaign, the Chicago Tribune reported at the time.
“As mayor, my administration made it a priority to bring the world to Chicago, and Chicago to the world,” Emanuel said. “During my tenure, Chicago led the nation in corporate relocations and foreign direct investment for seven consecutive years.”
Emanuel said little else about his tenure as mayor, illustrating how he was hamstrung on touting Chicago accomplishments as many are not relevant to an ambassadorship on the others side of the world.
But his talk of corporate relocations and relationships with sister cities abroad on his resume plays directly into criticisms from progressives that he was "Mayor 1%," a politician more focused on corporate tax breaks and his standing at the national and international levels than dealing with crime and education in working-class neighborhoods.
Emanuel’s economic disclosure to the Senate committee only fuels the criticism of his coziness with Wall Street bankers and corporate executives, as the former mayor reported earning $13.5 million since leaving office in May 2019.
Most of that came from Centerview Partners, a boutique Wall Street firm that paid Emanuel more than $12 million for his investment banking work, Emanuel’s filing shows. Firm co-founder Blair Effron contributed $61,500 to Emanuel’s mayoral campaign and former U.S. Treasury Secretary Robert Rubin, who also works at Centerview, gave more than $70,000.
Emanuel also reported getting paid $700,000 as a consultant for Wicklow Capital. The firm’s president, Dan Tierney, contributed more than $138,000 to the former mayor as he prepared a bid for a third term that he later abandoned.
According to his ethics disclosure, Emanuel made another $310,000 for his role as a Sunday morning political analyst for ABC, $150,000 in director fees from GoHealth, Inc. and $331,000 in public speaking fees, which the former mayor said he donated to charity.
The mayor’s private sector roles, however, did not come up in Wednesday’s hearing as Emanuel vowed to “work seamlessly, across the aisle, across the Capitol and across the Pacific to advance America’s interests in the vital Indo-Pacific region.”
“We are at a critical juncture in American foreign policy in this region,” Emanuel said. “What we build in partnership with Japan over the next three years will determine America’s posture for the next 30.”
That last remark echoed a go-to Chicago stump speech line for the former mayor, when he often emphasized his vision for the city by proclaiming that “what we do in next four years will determine Chicago’s future for the next 40 years.”
(Chicago Tribune’s John Byrne contributed to this story.)