The president of the United States has tapped an old friend with a track record of cruelty to an ambassadorship. Unfortunately, we’re no longer talking about Trump.
President Biden in August nominated Rahm Emanuel to be the new U.S. ambassador to Japan, and the Senate is now preparing to vote on whether to confirm him. The nomination isn’t surprising. It became clear soon after Biden took office that he was gearing up to give the former Obama chief of staff a marquee ambassadorship. It now looks like he’ll soon be 50 Senate votes away from serving as the administration’s liaison to the world’s third-largest economy.
So … about that track record.
Emanuel was an adviser to former President Clinton and a member of Congress before Obama tapped him to be his first chief of staff, a position he held for nearly two years (overseeing some triumphs and also some massive missed opportunities) before resigning to run for mayor of Chicago. Emanuel’s eight years at the helm of the state’s biggest city were tumultuous — to say the least.
Emanuel was criticized for closing half of the city’s mental health clinics, bashing teachers for striking for high wages, and plenty more. But chief among his sins was his effort to cover up the 2014 murder of Laquan McDonald, a black teenager who was shot dead in the street by Chicago police. As tends to happen, the police initially reported that McDonald was a threat and his killing was ruled justified. Emanuel, who was running for reelection at the time, apparently felt it was probably best to leave it at that, so his administration withheld dash-cam footage of the incident. When a judge ordered its release more than a year later, the footage showed McDonald walking away from police when he was shot 16 times by former Officer Jason Van Dyke. A month after he decided not to run, Van Dyke was convicted of second-degree murder.
Emanuel’s role in the cover-up caused his approval ratings to plunge, and many said his decision not to run for a third term to the scandal. But Emanuel had already put in his time and accrued enough capital within the Democratic Party to weather all of this. He landed a book deal almost immediately after announcing his decision not to run for a third term, and as Biden was preparing to take on Trump in 2020, Emanuel was reportedly in close contact with the future president’s team. Sure enough, Emanuel’s name was floated as a potential transportation secretary following Biden’s win, and then, once that position was given to Pete Buttigieg, as an ambassador.
Biden’s decision to nominate Emanuel to serve as the ambassador to Japan puts Senate Democrats in the uncomfortable position of deciding whether to defy Biden or vote for Emanuel. The nomination has drawn fierce criticism from progressive Democrats.
“This continues to be one of the most bizarre campaigns / uses of energy in Washington,” Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) wrote on Tuesday. “Once again, Senate should vote NO on confirming Rahm Emanuel.”
“You can value Black life, or you can confirm Rahm Emanuel to an ambassadorship,” added Rep. Jamaal Bowman (D-N.Y.). “Pick one.” Rep. Cori Bush (D-Mo.) said Emanuel should be “disqualified from any public office for covering up the murder of Laquan McDonald” and that “the Senate needs to do the right thing and block his nomination.”
One extremely easy way Biden could have avoided what will be a highly scrutinized nomination process for a typically uncontroversial diplomatic appointment would have been to simply refrain from trying to make a high-profile ambassador out of a controversy-ridden former mayor who covered up the murder of a 17-year-old child.
This post has been updated.