Seven years after the murder of a Black teenager by a white Chicago police officer, the man accused of assisting in the cover-up of critical evidence of the crime told the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations that his past actions should not disqualify him from becoming the United States’ next 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 Laquan McDonald’s murder and its aftermath—but that while he “clearly missed the level of distrust and skepticism that existed” from Black Chicagoans, he earned respect and support from McDonald’s family, including the civil rights organizations. They 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 on President Joe Biden’s list of political nominees for key U.S. ambassadorships abroad has infuriated civil rights leaders, progressive Democrats, and Chicago activists, who say the former mayor’s actions in the aftermath of McDonald’s murder are incompatible with a prestigious diplomatic post.
“For 400 days, Rahm Emanuel tried to cover up the truth of what happened to Laquan McDonald,” Kina Collins, a progressive Chicago congressional candidate, stated ahead of the hearing in a letter signed by more than 20 civil rights activists and families of victims of police violence.
“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, activists from the Chicago region requested that the nomination be removed and that senators hold 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 White House chief of staff under President Barack Obama, Emanuel has a strong personal connection with Biden and has already received public endorsements from many Republican senators, including Sen. Bill Hagerty (R-TN), who presented Emanuel before the committee on Wednesday.
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“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 received support from several other Republican senators, including Sens. Lindsey Graham (R-SC) and Susan Collins (R-ME), providing a wall of endorsement for his nomination in the face of silence from progressive Democratic caucus members like Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) and Bernie Sanders (D-VT), whose long-standing divide with Emanuel has never been officially addressed.
Some of the committee’s more progressive lawmakers were not persuaded by Emanuel’s first comments on McDonald’s death. Senator Jeff Merkley (D-OR) pressed Emanuel on the city’s choice to require McDonald’s family to sign a non-disclosure agreement in order to view the dashboard video of his murder, which he called “a pretty significant decision,” and one that suggested Emanuel’s office knew more about the conditions of the shooting than it let on.
However, the majority of the progressive push against Emanuel has been led by House members, including Reps. Jamaal Bowman (D-NY), Cori Bush (D-MO), and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY), who have perpetrated a quiet war to subvert the nomination after speaking out vigorously against Emanuel’s potential nomination to lead a cabinet department earlier this year.
Ocasio-Cortez summed up the progressive argument against Emanuel in a tweet in November 2020: “Covering up a murder is disqualifying for public leadership.”
What is so hard to understand about this?
Rahm Emanuel helped cover up the murder of Laquan McDonald. Covering up a murder is disqualifying for public leadership.
This is not about the “visibility” of a post. It is shameful and concerning that he is even being considered. https://t.co/P28C0E4fYP
— Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (@AOC) November 23, 2020
The committee’s chairman, Sen. Bob Menendez (D-NJ), highlighted in his opening comments that Emanuel’s hearing occurred on the anniversary of McDonald’s death, and said that “certainly, we will give you an opportunity to speak to that in the course of this hearing.”
In his opening comments, Emanuel made no mention of McDonald’s death, but he did emphasize his own mother’s efforts integrating Chicago’s beaches in the 1960s.
In case you’re wondering how much the Senate values Black lives:
They’re holding the confirmation hearing for Rahm Emanuel on the 7-year-anniversary of the police’s murder of Laquan McDonald. A murder that he helped cover up as Mayor.
A disgusting disregard for Black lives.
— Cori Bush (@CoriBush) October 20, 2021
In the days preceding up to Wednesday’s hearing, even backers of Emanuel’s candidacy had become more concerned about his performance before the committee.
According to sources acquainted with his preparation, the former mayor, who has been attending in-person “ambassador boot camp” training with other political and professional candidates in recent weeks, has participated in at least three murder board sessions in the days preceding up to the hearing.
On the anniversary of the murder of Laquan McDonald by a CPD officer, the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations is holding a hearing on Rahm Emmanuel’s appointment to US Ambassador in Japan. Some of us elected officials in Chicago decided to make our voices heard on the matter. pic.twitter.com/dgDkX4tJvt
— Ald. Rossana Rodriguez 🌹🇵🇷✊🏽🌈🏝 (@RossanaFor33) October 20, 2021
According to the same sources, some State Department officials were worried that Emanuel was not as prepared for a possible grilling by committee members as he should have been, both on his time as mayor of Chicago and on matters related to the United States’ relationship with Japan.
Emanuel, who has taken a contentious and, given the nature of his prospective job, undiplomatic route in Democratic politics, is close to several of the party’s most senior members, including Biden.
Today is the 7th anniversary of the murder of Laquan McDonald, & instead of being held accountable for the harm he caused in Chicago Rahm Emanuel is being promoted
— 🌸Lori Lightfoot Is A Cop🌸 (@606hoodlum) October 20, 2021
However, his time as mayor of Chicago was marred by a succession of scandals involving education, cronyism, and public safety, the latter of which was epitomized by McDonald’s murder and its aftermath.
McDonald’s death, in which a 17-year-old teenager was shot 16 times by a Chicago police officer while walking away from the cops, sparked nationwide demonstrations when dashcam video of the event revealed that police had lied about the circumstances surrounding his killing.
7 years ago today, Laquan McDonald was shot 16 times while walking away from a police officer.
The House passed the George Floyd Justice in Policing Act twice but we were stopped in the Senate. We’re now working with the White House to do everything possible to curb brutality. pic.twitter.com/1cdrD39oYn
— Congressmember Bass (@RepKarenBass) October 21, 2021
Emanuel was subsequently accused of organizing a cover-up of the video, which was only published after his reelection campaign was finished, in order to further his own career.
In the face of progressive outrage, the White House has supported Emanuel’s selection. When asked about his forthcoming appearance, White House press secretary Jen Psaki told reporters on Tuesday that Emanuel has “a record of public service” and that Biden believes the former mayor will “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.”