White House defends Rahm Emanuel's ambassadorial nomination against liberal backlash

At question is Emanuel's handling of the 2014 police killing of Laquan McDonald.

October 19, 2021, 6:55 PM

Amid a fresh wave of criticism from liberal activists and lawmakers, the White House on Tuesday defended President Joe Biden's decision to nominate Rahm Emanuel for U.S. ambassador to Japan.

The former congressman and chief of staff to President Barack Obama has faced questions over how, as mayor of Chicago, he handled the fatal police shooting of 17-year-old Laquan McDonald in 2014.

Emanuel faces his Senate confirmation hearing Wednesday, which is also the seventh anniversary of McDonald's killing -- prompting renewed outcry this week.

He's one of dozens of Biden ambassadorial nominees still stuck in the confirmation process. Biden has seen a single-digit handful of his ambassadorial nominees confirmed by the Senate, leaving key vacancies in foreign capitals and at the highest ranks of the State Department that some analysts warn pose a national security threat.

Sen. Ted Cruz speaks during a Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing in Washington, D.C., Sept. 14, 2021.
The Washington Post/Bloomberg via Getty Images

Republican senators, especially Ted Cruz of Texas and Josh Hawley of Missouri, have put holds on dozens of nominees over Biden's refusal to sanction the German company behind Russia's pipeline, Nord Stream 2. But the chair of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Sen. Bob Menendez, D-N.J., secured confirmation for 33 nominees on Tuesday, sending them to the Senate floor for a final vote.

White House press secretary Jen Psaki pushed back against new calls for Biden to withdraw Emanuel's nomination on Tuesday.

"The president nominated Rahm Emanuel to serve as ambassador to Japan because he's somebody who has a record of public service, both in Congress, serving as a public official in the White House, and certainly also as the mayor of Chicago, and he felt he was somebody who could best represent the United States in Japan," she told reporters.

No Democratic senators have spoken out against Emanuel's nomination. Instead, powerful Democratic senators like Dick Durbin, the Senate Majority Whip and a fellow Illinois Democrat, have backed him. Durbin tweeted back in August that Emanuel "has a lifetime of public service preparing him to speak for America. ... I will do all I can to help Rahm become America's voice in Japan."

Some House Democrats, however, have urged the White House to reverse course, although they do not vote to confirm nominees.

"This nomination is deeply shameful. ... That the Biden administration seeks to reward Emanuel with an ambassadorship is an embarrassment and betrayal of the values we seek to uphold both within our nation and around the world. I urge the Senate to vote NO on his confirmation," Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-N.Y., said in a statement last month.

President Joe Biden and Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga of Japan hold a news conference in the Rose Garden of the White House on April 16, 2021.
Doug Mills/Pool via Getty Images

This week, Kina Collins, a Democrat running for Congress in Emanuel's home state of Illinois, has been leading advocacy against him.

"We can't say Black Lives Matter and plan to build back better by appointing the man who covered up a police murder to a cushy job as an ambassador -- a job the man is completely unqualified to hold," tweeted the community organizer and activist, running again against Democratic lawmaker Danny Davis, who has held the Chicago district's seat for over two decades.

At issue is the accusation that Emanuel, a longtime Democratic power player, helped cover up the 2014 killing of McDonald, a black teenager shot 16 times by Jason Van Dyke, a white policer officer.

Chicago police had said McDonald ignored warnings and approached the officers, but video, released 13 months later by a judge's order, showed McDonald veering away from Van Dyke before the officer shot him.

The city reached a settlement with McDonald's family, and in October 2018, Van Dyke was found guilty of second-degree murder and 16 counts of aggravated battery with a firearm.

Emanuel had said the city could not release the video because of a Justice Department investigation, said he did not see the video until shortly before its release, and has denied any wrongdoing. The video was released in Nov. 2015, seven months after Emanuel won reelection as mayor.

Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel reacts to aldermanic speeches in his honor during a city council meeting, April 10, 2019.
Chicago Tribune/TNS via Getty Images

Asked whether Biden and Emanuel have spoken, including about the McDonald case, Psaki told reporters, "I don't have any record of him speaking with him necessarily through the process. ... Obviously, he's somebody who he was familiar with. He knew his record of long standing prior to the nomination. And the president has made his own comments about that case, which I would point everyone to."

Emanuel, a former ABC News contributor, was reportedly under consideration for a Cabinet secretary position during the transition last winter, but ultimately, he was not nominated for a role. The White House announced his nomination for ambassador to Japan on Aug. 20 after months of speculation.

To date, only nine Biden ambassador picks have been confirmed by the Senate, with dozens of others held up by Cruz, Hawley, and others over foreign policy disagreements with the White House, especially on Nord Stream 2.

"There have been unprecedented delays, obstruction, holds on qualified individuals from Republicans in the Senate," Psaki said Monday. "The blame is clear. It is frustrating. It is something that we wish would move forward more quickly."

After months of battle, however, there was a breakthrough Tuesday, with the Senate Foreign Relations Committee voting to send 33 nominations to the Senate floor for a vote.

"As the United States faces an unprecedented confluence of challenges on the world stage, our security, interests, and ability to advance our values and assert global leadership should not be imperiled by the obstructionism of those infatuated with playing politics with our entire national security infrastructure," Menendez said Tuesday.

Among those approved by the committee are Cindy McCain, John McCain's widow, for U.S. envoy to the United Nations agencies in Rome; former Republican Sen. Jeff Flake, an outspoken Trump critic, as ambassador to Turkey; famed pilot Chesley Burnett "Sully" Sullenberger as U.S. envoy to the International Civil Aviation Organization; and former Delaware Democratic Gov. Jack Markell as U.S. envoy to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development in Paris.

ABC News's Sarah Donaldson contributed to this report from the White House.