WASHINGTON — Former Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel said Wednesday he did nothing improper but still fell short in his handling of the fatal police shooting of a Black teenager in the city seven years ago, a dark moment in his tenure looming large now as he hopes to win Senate confirmation as President Joe Biden’s ambassador to Japan.
Several liberal House lawmakers and activists have urged the Senate to reject Emanuel's nomination because of his handling of the death of 17-year-old Laquan McDonald, who was shot 16 times as he he moved away from police on a Chicago street. Emanuel's hearing before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee came on the seventh anniversary of McDonald's killing.
Emanuel's critics argue that his nomination is out of sync with the values of an administration that says “comprehensive and meaningful police reform" is a priority.
But Emanuel, whose administration refused to make public the police dash cam video of the killing for more than a year and only did so after being compelled by a state court, said his hands were tied at the time by outdated rules that governed the release of police video.
“A grave tragedy occurred seven years ago, to this day, on the streets of the city of Chicago, and that tragedy sits with me, as it has every day and every week for the last seven years,” Emanuel said.
Emanuel’s reputation for sharp elbows — developed over his decades in national politics as an Illinois congressman and top adviser to Presidents Bill Clinton and Barack Obama — also is part of the backdrop as he tries to demonstrate that he has the temperament for international diplomacy, particularly in protocol-conscious Japan. .
If confirmed, Emanuel will be Biden's chief envoy to Japan at a moment when the two nations are looking to strengthen ties as their common adversary, China, has strengthened its position as an economic and national security competitor in the Pacific.
“My top priority will be to deepen these ties while we confront our common challenges," Emanuel told the committee. “China aims to conquer through division. America’s strategy is security through unity. That regional unity is built on the U.S.-Japan alliance."
No Democratic senator has publicly stated he or she would vote against Emanuel. The White House expects he will win support from several Republicans, including Sen. Bill Hagerty of Tennessee, who was President Donald Trump's ambassador to Japan.
Among the Democrats most critical of Emanuel's nomination are Reps. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York, who called the pick “deeply shameful," and Cori Bush of Missouri, who has called on the Senate “to do the right thing and block his nomination."
Hagerty and Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., formally introduced Emanuel at the hearing. Hagerty said while there were many issues on which he disagrees with Emanuel, he was certain the nominee shares his “unwavering conviction that the U.S.-Japan relationship is the cornerstone for peace and prosperity” in the Indo-Pacific region.
The release of the McDonald video led Chicago to make a series of changes in policies on police cameras, the use of force and training. Months before the video's release, the city agreed to pay a $5 million settlement to McDonald's family.
Jason Van Dyke, the officer who shot McDonald 16 times. was convicted of second-degree murder, 16 counts of aggravated assault and sentenced to six years and nine months in prison. The episode strained Emanuel's relationship with the city's sizable Black community.
Sen. Jeff Merkley, D-Ore., said the committee should “weigh” Emanuel’s handling of the McDonald killing and that Emanuel has a “story to tell” about the changes made in Chicago after the video was released. But the senator raised concern about several aspects of the case, including the fact that Emanuel did not view footage of the shooting until shortly before it was made public and months after a large settlement was paid out to McDonald's family.
Emanuel said he kept a distance so federal, state and police oversight investigations could proceed without political interference.
Eight Black members of Chicago's City Council who were allies of Emanuel during his tenure praised Emanuel, in a letter to the Senate committee, for lengthening the day for the city's public schools and taking other steps that benefited long-neglected Black neighborhoods.
Rev. Martin Hunter, the great uncle of McDonald, also wrote on Emanuel's behalf, arguing that Emanuel had “inherited a deeply flawed system" on police investigations that tied his hands. Emanuel told the committee that he and Hunter have prayed together about the incident and wished they had “a magic wand” to fix what’s broken in the criminal justice system.
Hunter wrote in his letter to the committee: “There is more to this individual than the caricature that is presented in the public."