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Rahm Emanuel's coverup of Laquan McDonald's death can't be forgotten

Democrats can embrace police reform or Rahm Emanuel as ambassador to Japan — but not both.
Image: Rahm Emanuel
Chicago's former mayor has no place in public service.Chip Somodevilla / Getty Images; MSNBC

The White House announced Friday that President Joe Biden intended to nominate Rahm Emanuel to be the next ambassador to Japan. The nomination, which comes after Emanuel was apparently rejected for other positions in the administration, belies Biden’s claim that he was running for president to restore “the soul of this nation.” Emanuel is responsible for one of the more soulless moves by a Democratic politician in recent memory.

As Emanuel was fighting for re-election as mayor of Chicago, he kept video of the police murder of Laquan McDonald hidden from public view. Emanuel's administration spent more than a year arguing against releasing footage of the 17-year-old's death to the public, only relenting because of a judge's order.

While Emanuel has denied that a cover-up ever took place, blaming his lack of transparency on "city rules," the normally staid Associated Press pulled no punches when the city’s full investigative report was released after he had left office: “There is no incident in recent Chicago history that has created such distrust of City Hall and the police department than then-Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s unsuccessful legal battle to keep under wraps the dashcam video showing Officer Jason Van Dyke shoot the teen 16 times.”

But as the White House framed Friday’s announcement, Emanuel, the “former Mayor of the City of Chicago and White House Chief of Staff to President Obama, has had a distinguished career in public service.” Highlighting his claimed economic successes as mayor and legislative successes as chief of staff, the announcement also half-heartedly suggested Emanuel has some foreign policy expertise that would justify the obviously political appointment.

Regardless, his lack of foreign policy expertise or any connection to Japan is not the most offensive part of this nomination. His prioritizing his re-election over justice for McDonald and his family is.

I’m not sure what Biden’s definition of “distinguished” is, but it’s impossible to believe it includes such ignominy. No matter where individual Democrats stand on issues of police staffing and funding, all should agree that governmental cover-ups of police killings are unacceptable. Rewarding a politician who oversaw a cover-up with an ambassadorship is abhorrent and should have been a nonstarter.

No matter where individual Democrats stand on issues of police staffing and funding, all should agree that governmental cover-ups of police killings are unacceptable

The best step now would be for Biden to reconsider the nomination before he even sends it to the Senate. Or for Emanuel himself to step back. (It’s doubtful he will, but it is, technically, a possibility.)

If neither of those things happens, though, Democrats who put themselves forward last year as leaders on criminal justice issues must oppose this nomination. In 2020, in the midst of the protests following Minneapolis Police Officer Derek Chauvin’s murder of George Floyd in Minnesota, 36 Senate Democrats co-sponsored the Justice in Policing Act of 2020. A provision in that legislation regarding body cameras states that such “footage may not be withheld from the public on the basis that it is an investigatory record or was compiled for law enforcement purposes where any person under investigation or whose conduct is under review is a police officer or other law enforcement employee and the video footage relates to that person's on-the-job conduct.” That’s the exact excuse Emanuel gave for keeping the video of McDonald’s murder hidden.

If Biden refuses to do the right thing and insists on sticking with Emanuel’s nomination, Democrats on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee are going to have a key chance to question the nominee at his confirmation hearing. Committee member Sen. Cory Booker, D-N.J., was the lead sponsor of the 2020 policing bill. He should ask Emanuel how the would-be ambassador can be expected to stand up for civil rights abroad when he put protecting his own political career over standing up for civil rights at home.

Every senator who co-sponsored last year’s Justice in Policing Act must speak out about Emanuel’s nomination. Those on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee must challenge him with tough questions, and they all must vote against his nomination should it reach the floor. As Rep. Rashida Tlaib, D-Mich., put it Friday: “If you believe Black lives indeed matter, then the Senate must reject his appointment immediately.”

There might be enough Republican support for the nomination to confirm Emanuel, but what will it look like if Biden and Emanuel are left in the position of needing Republican support to confirm him?

Senate Democrats, all but three of whom are younger than Biden and looking to the party of the future, know Emanuel’s nomination isn’t a good look. The only question is whether they’ll act on that knowledge and do their part to stop it.