Senate confirms former Chicago mayor Rahm Emanuel to be Japan ambassador

The former Chicago mayor and Obama chief-of-staff faced calls for his withdrawal from progressives over case of Laquan McDonald

John Bowden
Saturday 18 December 2021 18:17
Rahm Emanuel on Laquan McDonald's murder

Former Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel is the new US ambassador to Japan after being confirmed in a spate of nomination successes for the Biden administration this weekend.

The Senate voted 48-21 to confirm Mr Emanuel, who also served as chief-of-staff in the Obama White House, despite steep opposition from progressives over his handling of the fatal shooting of Laquan McDonald.

During Mr Emanuel’s tenure as Chicago mayor, video of the Black teenager’s shooting by a white police officer was held back from release by city officials for more than a year.

When the video was made public, it led to widespread protests as it revealed that the boy was running away from the officer when he was shot sixteen times. Mr McDonald was holding a knife, and accused of breaking in to parked cars when the chase began. He was 17 at the time of the shooting.

In particular, the timing of the video’s release became a controversy for Mr Emanuel himself. The shooting occurred several months before a close mayor election in which Mr Emanuel narrowly won reelection, and would not go on to be released for 13 months after the incident. His office resisted its release via the courts, prompting many to argue that a cover-up had occurred.

Charges were filed against the officer shortly after the video came out, and former officer Jason Van Dyke was sentenced to more than six years in prison after being found guilty of second-degree murder.

The controversy revealed a blind spot for the Obama wing of the Democratic Party, which saw its reputation sour with activists in the city where the former president spent his formative years, and plans to construct his presidential library.

Two Democratic senators, Jeff Merkley and Ed Markey, both voted no to Mr Emanuel taking up the post in Japan.

Democratic members of the House, including New York Reps Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Jamaal Bowman, supporters of the Black Lives Matter movement, fiercely criticised President Joe Biden’s decision to nominate Mr Emanuel.

"When elected officials use their power against Black lives, they should not receive this honor," Mr Bowman tweeted earlier this year.

Ms Ocasio-Cortez added in early September: "This nomination is deeply shameful. As mayor of Chicago, Rahm Emanuel helped cover up the murder of Laquan McDonald - a mere teenager when he was shot 16 times in the back by a Chicago Police Officer. This alone should be flatly disqualifying for any position of public trust, let alone representing the United States as an ambassador. That the Biden administration seeks to reward Emanuel with an ambassadorship is an embarrassment and betrayal of the values we seek to uphold both within our nation and around the world.”

Mr Emanuel attempted to respond to that criticism at his confirmation hearing in October.

“There's not a day or a 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. A grave tragedy occurred seven years ago. And that tragedy sits with me, as it has, every day and every week for the last seven years,” he said.

“I thought I was addressing the issue, and I clearly missed the level of distrust and skepticism that existed,” Mr Emanuel continued at the time.

The former mayor’s nomination and confirmation appeared to be a nod to the Biden administration’s ongoing ties to the Obama years, when Mr Biden served as vice president.

The former mayor’s confirmation came alongside 40 other ambassador nominees and nine federal judges.

Many nominations had been held up for weeks by conservatives in the upper chamber. However it sailed through overnight after Democrats agreed to a vote on legislation from Texas Senator Ted Cruz to impose sanctions on the construction of the Russia-Germany Nord Stream 2 natural gas pipeline.

“At the end of the day, we will have invoked cloture on two circuit judges, confirmed nine district court judges, confirmed 41 ambassadors, and confirmed five other members of President Biden’s team,” Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer said at the end of Friday night’s marathon session.

“It’s been a long day but a good day’s work. I thank my colleagues,” he added.

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