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Rahm Emanuel grilled on Laquan McDonald murder by only one senator at confirmation hearing

Emanuel said at his Japan ambassador confirmation hearing that while he was Chicago mayor, when it came to police and the Black community, “I clearly missed the level of distrust and skepticism that existed, and that’s on me.”

Rahm Emanuel, former mayor of Chicago and former chief of staff in the Obama White House, testifies during a confirmation hearing Oct. 20.
Rahm Emanuel testifies Wednesday at his confirmation hearing on Capitol Hill.
Alex Wong/Getty Images

WASHINGTON — Rahm Emanuel caught major breaks at his Wednesday Senate confirmation hearing to be President Joe Biden’s ambassador to Japan, with only one Democratic senator, Jeff Merkley of Oregon, skeptical of his handling of the Laquan McDonald murder while he was mayor and most Republicans not even bothering to show up.

Even the one Black member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Sen. Cory Booker, D-N.J., the lead Democrat on police reform legislation, did not attend the hearing or appear virtually to ask questions about the Black teen shot 16 times by a white Chicago police officer on Oct. 20, 2014.

Of the 11 Republicans on the panel, only two were in the hearing, the co-chair, Sen. James Risch of Idaho, and Sen. Bill Hagerty, of Tennessee, a former Trump ambassador to Japan who already endorsed Emanuel’s confirmation. Emanuel was introduced by Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., and Hagerty.

By coincidence, Emanuel’s hearing was on the seventh anniversary of the McDonald shooting, and Committee Chair Sen. Bob Menendez, D-N.J., did Emanuel a favor by raising it in his opening remarks, a preemptive move that set the stage for Emanuel to express his deep regrets — not an explicit apology — over the murder that was the biggest stain on Emanuel’s two terms as mayor.

“As you are aware, today is also the anniversary of the murder of Laquan McDonald,” Menendez said. “My heart goes out to his family on this day. I believe all of us share that sentiment and to so many other victims and their families as we work to deliver meaningful reforms to the Black and Brown communities who endure injustices every day.”

Emanuel, speaking with emotion and a bit haltingly, took Menendez up on his request to address the case. He called the murder of the 17-year-old a “grave tragedy.”

He added, “There’s not a day or a week that has gone by in the last seven years that I haven’t thought about this and thought about it.”

Emanuel also acknowledged that he did not understand at the time the lack of trust between City Hall and Chicago’s Black residents.

“I made a number of changes that dealt with oversight, accountability,” he said. “And it is clear to me the changes were inadequate to the level of distrust. They were on the best marginal; I thought I was addressing the issue, and I clearly missed the level of distrust and skepticism that existed, and that’s on me.”

Progressive activists tried and failed to persuade Biden from nominating Emanuel, objecting to his centrist politics and what they called an Emanuel cover-up of a police video of the shooting that did not come out until after he was elected to a second term.

Emanuel said — as he had before — that when it came to releasing the video, his hands were tied.

“As you know there’s a long-standing protocol and practice that nothing’s released in the middle of an investigation for fear of either prejudicing a witness or endangering a prosecution. That was the practice, long-standing, not just in Chicago but across the country,” he said.

What the activists in Chicago and here did succeed in doing — helped by the coincidence of the hearing falling on the McDonald murder anniversary — was raising enough heat to make sure Emanuel was asked about it at his hearing.

Sen. Tim Kaine, D-Va., a former mayor of Richmond, decided to provide Emanuel with some cover. Any mayor is going to be “picking up some scar tissue along the way,” he said.

Emanuel faced pointed questions from Sen. Jeff Merkley of Oregon about when he learned of the details of McDonald’s death and events leading up to the video release. Merkley has been under pressure from progressives in Oregon, and his hostile questions were expected by Emanuel.

Citing letters he received from Chicago and state officials, he said it was “important” for Emanuel to be pressed about McDonald. Merkley noted that Chicago’s City Council approved a $5 million settlement to the McDonald family in about “one minute.”

Rahm Emanuel with son Zach, a Navy intelligence officer, and daughter Ilana at his Senate confirmation hearing.
Rahm Emanuel with son Zach, a Navy intelligence officer, and daughter Ilana at his Senate confirmation hearing.
Lynn Sweet/Sun-Times

WHAT’S NEXT FOR RAHM

His nomination will easily advance out of the Senate committee to the full Senate.

Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, a member of the committee, skipped Emanuel’s hearing. He is putting a hold on most of Biden’s ambassador nominees, with a few exceptions for those who served in the Senate. Cruz may extend that congressional “courtesy” to Emanuel, a former House member.

Merkley is a likely no vote. It’s not known where progressive leaders Sens. Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren stand on Emanuel. With GOP senators raising no issues with Emanuel, he’ll have the votes to be confirmed.