The Laquan McDonald controversy has converted Mayor Rahm Emanuel from a once-powerful player on the national stage into a virtual bystander in the presidential race whom candidates either criticize or avoid.
But Emanuel’s days on the sidelines ended with a bang Monday thanks to twin controversies swirling around Republican front-runner Donald Trump.
Trump is under fire for using his popular Twitter feed to retweet a quote attributed to Italian dictator Benito Mussolini and for failing to disavow support his presidential campaign has received from David Duke, former grand wizard of the Ku Klux Klan, and other white supremacist groups.
After casting an early vote Monday at 69 W. Washington, Emanuel was asked about the “conventional wisdom” that the mayor and his fellow Democrats were chomping at the bit to have Trump as the Republican nominee against Emanuel’s candidate, former First Lady Hillary Clinton.
Emanuel started by saying that “assumptions” about the long-term viability of Trump’s candidacy “haven’t come true” over the last six months.
Then, the mayor cut to the chase about the former reality TV show star.
“That was kind of a faux reality show where you audition for a job. He’s now auditioning for the biggest job in America. It’s not just the biggest job in America. It’s the biggest job in the world,” said Emanuel, who served as an adviser to one U.S. president and White House chief of staff to another.
“Over the weekend, whether it was dealing with Mussolini or David Duke, his statements or the lack of clarity around his statements — you know, you sleep in the bed you make. And I think playing with dark forces comes back to haunt you.”
Emanuel said the U.S. presidency is “not a joke.” But Trump’s intemperate and flippant remarks are making it so.
“When people say this is a candidate you want to run against, there’s some bigger challenges and bigger issues people have to confront,” the mayor said.
“The idea that you cannot have your moral clarity as it relates to a quote by Mussolini or more importantly the support of a David Duke associated with the Klan is a statement that I think everybody should condemn, with clarity and you don’t need to check on that. You should know that by instinct.”
Emanuel’s grandparents fled the pogroms of Eastern Europe.
The mayor’s mother was a civil rights activist during the 1950’s and early `60’s who used to drag her three young sons to protests for fair housing and school and beach desegregation in Chicago.
As a teenager, Emanuel joined the 1978 Marquette Park protest to counter a city-sanctioned rally by a group of Nazis led by Frank Collin.
With those values ingrained in him, Emanuel was appalled to hear Trump repeatedly refuse to disavow support from Duke and other white supremacist groups.
“Just so you understand, I don’t know anything about David Duke, OK?” Trump told interviewer Jake Tapper during a live interview on CNN.
Three times, Tapper asked Trump whether he would distance himself from the Ku Klux Klan.
“I don’t know anything about what you’re even talking about with white supremacy or white supremacists,” he said. “So I don’t know. I don’t know — did he endorse me, or what’s going on? Because I know nothing about David Duke; I know nothing about white supremacists.”
Trump later blamed the exchange on a “bad earpiece” during the live interview on CNN. He said he could “hardly hear” the questions.
Trump’s decision to use his Twitter feed to post a quote from Mussolini, founder of the Fascist movement, was equally troubling to Chicago’s first Jewish mayor.
A parody account known as @ilduce2016, had compared Trump to Mussolini. The tweet even used a doctored photo of Trump’s comb-over hair with Mussolini’s face.
Trump then re-tweeted the quote, “It is better to live one day as a lion than 100 years as a sheep.”
Asked about his decision to quote Mussolini on NBC’s “Meet the Press,” Trump said he was unaware of the origin of the quote. But he didn’t apologize either.
“I didn’t know who said it, but what difference does it make if it was Mussolini or somebody else? It’s a very good quote,” Trump said. He added, “Hey, it got your attention, didn’t it?”
It’s not the first time that Chicago’s mayor has taken on Donald Trump.
Two years ago, Emanuel engaged in a clash of giant egos with Trump over the developer’s decision to plaster his name on his residential tower along the Chicago River.
At the time, the mayor denounced the 2,891 square foot sign as “architecturally tasteless,” only to acknowledge there was nothing he could do about it.
The sign wars ended with Trump getting the last laugh.
Emanuel persuaded the City Council to approve a crackdown on riverfront signs that will inadvertently help to promote Trump’s treasured brand.
By turning the Chicago Riverfront into a “sign district” — with sharp limits on the size, placement and make-up of future signs — the sign that Trump used to brand his 96-story Trump International Hotel & Tower will have far less competition for the eye to see.