Rahm Emanuel could face opposition from an unusual source at his Wednesday nomination hearing to be the next US ambassador to Japan: his own party.
Some progressive Democrats are furious about his selection, citing his record as mayor of Chicago and specifically his handling of the 2014 police shooting of 17-year-old Laquan McDonald. Emanuel – who was accused of suppressing video that contradicted police accounts of the killing, a claim that he denied – will appear before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee exactly seven years to the day that McDonald was shot 16 times, with most of the bullets striking him as he lay limp on the ground.
At a time when the US relationship with Asia and its competition with China have become the administration’s central foreign policy concerns, Emanuel’s nomination has become a domestic political issue and the latest example of strains between the progressive and centrist wings of the Democratic Party.
A political blunder
Japanese officials and Asia experts say Emanuel has immersed himself in preparations for the hearing and the job, and they stress the need for a US envoy in the increasingly tense region. North Korea has conducted a barrage of missile tests in recent weeks and claimed Tuesday to have successfully tested a submarine-launched ballistic missile. Reports that China had conducted a hypersonic missile test – later denied by officials in Beijing – roiled the region over the weekend. And Beijing’s military has become increasingly aggressive in the seas and skies of the Asia Pacific.
The White House has been emphatic in its support of Emanuel. Spokeswoman Jen Psaki said Tuesday that, “the President nominated Rahm Emanuel to serve as ambassador to Japan because he’s somebody who has a record of public service, both in Congress, serving as a public official in the White House, and certainly also as the mayor of Chicago. And he felt he was somebody who could best represent the United States in Japan.”
Democrats including Illinois Sens. Dick Durbin and Tammy Duckworth and Colorado Sen. Michael Bennet, and key senators involved in the confirmation process – including Republican Sen. Bill Hagerty of Tennessee, who will introduce Emanuel to the committee along with Durbin – also back Emanuel.
The former mayor has also drawn support from Chicago figures, including the great uncle of Laquan McDonald, leaders from the Chicago Aldermanic Black Caucus and a former president and CEO of the Chicago Urban League, who wrote Senate Foreign Relations Committee leaders in support of his nomination.
But others critical of his selection say that President Joe Biden is making a political blunder in tapping his longtime friend to be envoy to Japan. They point to the uncertain midterm elections ahead and decry the “betrayal” of Biden’s declarations that racial justice will be a priority for his administration.
“This is not smart politics for our midterm elections in 2022,” said Kina Collins, a congressional candidate in Chicago who is organizing protests Wednesday to mark the 7th anniversary of McDonald’s death. She calls Biden’s move to nominate Emanuel “a complete slap in the face to Black America right now.”
“We have one of the highest voter turnouts in 2020, and it was young Black and Brown organizers across the city and across this country who were fighting for social justice and believed that Joe Biden would have Black America’s back – that that’s what he said,” Collins told CNN. “So as we go into these midterm elections in 2022, it makes it extremely difficult for the Democratic Party to say that they are keeping their word on what was promised on the campaign trail. The litmus test is very simple. We listen to what you say and we watch what you do, and what you’re saying and what you’re doing is not aligning right now.”
The criticism from Collins is matched by lawmakers in office, particularly in the House, where lawmakers do not have a say in the confirmation process.
Rep. Jamaal Bowman, a New York Democrat, told CNN that “it is unconscionable the US Senate is considering Rahm Emanuel’s nomination,” adding that Emanuel “used the power of his office as mayor of Chicago to cover up the murder of a child” and that the hearing “should not even be happening in the first place.”
“I’m disappointed that a White House which claims to value racial justice would nominate Emanuel, because his level of disrespect for Black lives should be disqualifying, not rewarded with a prestigious ambassadorship,” Bowman added.
In 2015, Emanuel apologized for the circumstances surrounding McDonald’s death, including the fact it took 13 months before police dashboard camera video of the shooting became public and the officer who killed him was charged.
Like Bowman, Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, another New York Democrat, called on the Senate to reject Emanuel’s nomination in September, calling it “an embarrassment and betrayal of the values we seek to uphold.”
Some centrist Democrats are also expressing discomfort, even though Emanuel’s meetings with lawmakers in advance of Wednesday’s hearing have gone well, according to Senate aides on both sides of the aisle who nod to the Chicago native’s track record. Whether it was as an adviser to President Bill Clinton, as chief of staff to President Barack Obama or as a House lawmaker, Emanuel often struck those around him as abrasive, one Senate aide noted.
‘I don’t think that Republicans are likely to be the people who vote against him’
While Republicans aren’t expected to oppose Emanuel’s nomination, this aide and others raised questions about how much Democratic support the 61-year-old will win and suggested some of it may be reluctant. “Generally, I don’t think that Republicans are likely to be the people who vote against him,” said a second Senate aide.
Rumors of Emanuel’s nomination raised eyebrows months before it was formally announced in August. A fixture in Democratic politics, the former House lawmaker was widely known as brash, mercurial and profane – so much the opposite of diplomatic material that one US diplomat recalls a Japanese counterpart calling to express amazement that Biden would nominate Emanuel at all.
Referring to Emanuel’s famously salty language, the Japanese diplomat wondered jokingly how senior officials in Tokyo would even understand him, since there is no direct translation for a specific expletive he’s been heard to use.
Now, officials in Tokyo are eager to have Emanuel confirmed and in place. “Of course, we hope he will arrive in Japan and assume his duty as ambassador as soon as possible, so he can play an active role in strengthening the US-Japan alliance,” said one Japanese official, adding that the feeling in Tokyo is that “he’s going to get the job done.” Emanuel’s long track record in Washington and his close relationship with Biden are seen as tremendous assets in Tokyo, where officials prize a US ambassador with a direct line to the President and those around him.
If Emanuel is confirmed, his work in Tokyo will likely be driven by the growing competition with China, said Kurt Tong, a partner at The Asia Group, a consulting firm.
“The US-China relationship is driving the approach to the region. Japan’s role in that is what will get the highest priority for the United States,” said Tong, a former ambassador whose diplomatic career focused on Asia. “Things tend to flow from that.”
As ambassador, Emanuel would likely be asked to focus on coordinating with Japan on three key aspects of the relationship with China, Tong said, listing “military positioning and assets vis a vis China,” technological competition with Beijing, and ideological or governance issues, including human rights.
Tong said he believes the top US requests to Japan “may be related to security issues, including defense spending and questions around operational interoperability and military operations; discussions around Taiwan and Japan’s southwestern islands and how they can best be defended; and weapons acquisition.”
Coordination between US and Japan on technological competition with China will also be an important factor in the relationship, including work on supply chain resiliency, investment controls, export restrictions and the defense of intellectual property rights, Tong added.
“If you’re building a policy around long-term strategic competition with China, then technological competition is a very, very important aspect of that,” Tong said.