The U.S. Senate voted early Saturday morning to confirm former Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel as ambassador to Japan, officially opening yet another act in a three-decade political career that has run through two White Houses, Capitol Hill, Chicago City Hall and, now, the American embassy in Tokyo.
The Senate voted 48-to-21 to confirm Emanuel, with the longtime political operator receiving support — as well as opposition — from Democrats and Republicans alike.
The vote came in the middle of the night after Democrats struck a deal with Republican Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas, who agreed to lift a hold he had placed on 32 of President Joe Biden’s nominees in exchange for allowing a vote next month on legislation related to a Russian gas pipeline on which Cruz has wanted to place sanctions. Given the late hour that the Senate concluded its business for the year, just 69 senators were present to confirm Emanuel.
Democratic Sens. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts, Edward Markey of Massachusetts and Jeff Merkley of Oregon voted against Emanuel while progressive independent Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont did not vote. Eight Republicans voted in favor of Emanuel: Sens. Roy Blunt of Missouri, Susan Collins of Maine, Chuck Grassley of Iowa, Bill Hagerty of Tennessee, Ben Sasse of Nebraska, Dan Sullivan of Alaska, John Thune of South Dakota and Todd Young of Indiana.
Emanuel did not immediately respond to a request for comment Saturday morning.
The former mayor now will be asked to execute diplomacy at the highest levels of the U.S. government, the latest evolution in a political career often defined by a reputation he cultivated as a brash political insider with an affinity for four-letter words and a talent for raising loads of campaign cash.
Emanuel’s return to government marks a second spin through the revolving door between the public and private sectors. Emanuel’s two stints in investment banking, first after his time in the Clinton White House and again after his eight years as mayor, helped him make more than $31 million, records show.
The former mayor’s deep D.C. experience as senior adviser to former President Bill Clinton, first chief of staff to former President Barack Obama and a Democratic leader in the U.S. House provided much of the foundation for his nomination as ambassador, but it was his eight polarizing years as Chicago’s mayor that dominated debate over his confirmation.
Civil rights leaders and prominent progressives argued Emanuel’s handling of Laquan McDonald’s murder by police while he was mayor should disqualify him for representing the United States abroad, pointing to a well-known chain of events following the Black teen’s death as reason enough to believe his administration tried to cover up the severity of the shooting.
Police dashcam footage of the killing, which showed then-Officer Jason Van Dyke pumping 16 shots into McDonald as he walked away holding a knife, captivated the country and led to Van Dyke’s conviction for second-degree murder. The video’s release was ordered by a judge and coincided with prosecutors filing murder charges more than a year after the shooting — and after Emanuel’s administration and aldermen had already paid McDonald’s family a $5 million settlement without a lawsuit being filed.
In his confirmation hearing, Emanuel both defended and expressed regret over how he handled the McDonald shooting, an event that roiled his tenure as mayor and resulted in weeks of street protests, calls for his resignation and a plummeting approval rating. Emanuel once again rejected the cover-up accusations while saying he underestimated the need for true police reform.
The former mayor produced letters of support from McDonald’s great uncle, Black aldermen and community leaders while former Chicago Inspector General Joseph Ferguson wrote a letter to senators concluding there was no evidence Emanuel or his administration engaged in a cover-up.
Emanuel’s Senate confirmation hearing took place on the seventh anniversary of McDonald’s death, which infuriated some Chicago activists and progressives who had called for senators to reject his nomination. But in the end, Emanuel had far too much support for them to overcome, from President Joe Biden, from Republicans and from Democrats with whom he’d served and strategized for decades.
Two progressives on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Sens. Merkley of Oregon and Markey of Massachusetts, voted against Emanuel’s nomination, but several Republicans backed Emanuel, including Sen. Jim Risch of Idaho, the ranking GOP member, and Sen. Hagerty of Tennessee, who was ambassador to Japan under former President Donald Trump.
Prior to Saturday’s vote, Sen. Dick Durbin of Illinois, who introduced Emanuel for his committee hearing, dismissed the Democratic votes against the mayor lauded his success in recruiting Republican votes.
“There were also a number of Republican senators on that committee who voted for Rahm, who as you might expect, is very talented and was doing his homework,” Durbin said when asked about Merkley and Markey’s opposition. “We understood the two Democrats who voted, ‘No’ in committee and I spoke to both of them personally and understood where they were coming from. No arm twisting involved.”
Merkley pointedly questioned Emanuel about when he learned specific details of the McDonald shooting before committee chairman, Sen. Bob Menendez of New Jersey, cut Merkley off for going over his allotted time. Merkley cited the McDonald case for his reason for voting against Emanuel while Markey did not offer a public explanation.
“Black Lives Matter. Here in the halls of Congress, it is important that we not just speak and believe these words, but put them into action in the decisions we make,” Merkley said following his committee vote.
Merkley’s comments echoed those of several progressive House Democrats, who argued Emanuel’s handling of the McDonald shooting should disqualify him from the post. That included U.S. Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York, who called Biden’s appointment of Emanuel “deeply shameful.”
The former mayor, however, had the support of high-profile establishment Democrats, including Biden, Clinton, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and House Majority Whip James Clyburn, the highest-ranking Black member of Congress.
Durbin, the No. 2 ranking Senate Democrat, said he backed Emanuel because “he’ll be a very excellent representative in a critical country.” He applauded the former mayor’s responses to the sharp questioning over the McDonald case.
“Let me tell you what: Rahm Emanuel could not have been more forthright on that issue. He was quizzed on it by several senators in the Foreign Relations Committee, and he expected it,” Durbin said. “I thought his answers were honest and heartfelt on an issue that we all look back on with some regret that it wasn’t handled differently. But mayors make a lot of decisions, and that’s why I’m sure he wishes he had it to do over. But he was very honest about it before the committee.”
Prior to the full Senate vote, Illinois’ junior Sen. Tammy Duckworth offered a more tepid assessment of Emanuel’s appointment.
“At the end of the day, I support President Biden, and he nominated (Emanuel), and he was voted out of committee, so I intend to support the president,” said Duckworth, who has yet to face significant opposition in her bid next year for a second term. “That’s the best course of action.”
Asked if she thought the criticism of Emanuel over McDonald’s killing was fair, Duckworth replied, “Yeah. I think that the Laquan McDonald situation was very poorly handled, and I was deeply disturbed by what happened.”
Not enough, however, for Duckworth to vote against the prominent politician from her home state.
Following months of speculation, Biden nominated Emanuel for the post in August after the former mayor lost out on being named transportation secretary to former South Bend Mayor Pete Buttigieg.
In his confirmation hearing, Emanuel emphasized the importance of strengthening ties to Japan amid heightened economic and military ambitions from China in the region.
Emanuel touted his travel to Japan as mayor and his work with international mayors on climate change as experience that prepared him for an ambassadorship. The former mayor told the committee that after his trip to Tokyo, the governor there signed on to the Chicago Climate Charter municipal agreement he created and two Japanese companies, DMG Mori and Beam Suntory, relocated offices to Chicago.
“As mayor, my administration made it a priority to bring the world to Chicago, and Chicago to the world,” Emanuel said. “During my tenure, Chicago led the nation in corporate relocations and foreign direct investment for seven consecutive years.”
Emanuel’s 44-member delegation for that 2018 trade trip to Japan and China was made up mostly of business heavyweights, including donors with ties to nearly $2 million in contributions to Emanuel’s campaign, the Tribune reported at the time.
Since leaving office in May 2019, Emanuel reported earning $13.5 million, according to his financial disclosure forms filed with the Senate.
Most of that came from Centerview Partners, a boutique Wall Street firm that paid Emanuel more than $12 million for his investment banking work, Emanuel’s filing shows. Firm co-founder Blair Effron contributed $61,500 to Emanuel’s mayoral campaign and former U.S. Treasury Secretary Robert Rubin, who also works at Centerview, gave more than $70,000.
Emanuel also reported getting paid $700,000 as a consultant for Wicklow Capital. The firm’s president, Dan Tierney, contributed more than $138,000 to the former mayor as he prepared a bid for a third term that he later abandoned.
According to his ethics disclosure, Emanuel made another $310,000 for his role as a Sunday morning political analyst for ABC, $150,000 in director fees from GoHealth, Inc. and $331,000 in public speaking fees, which the former mayor said he donated to charity.
The $13.5 million comes on top of the more than $18 million Emanuel made in a little more than two years after leaving the Clinton White House in 1998. As ambassador to Japan, Emanuel will be expected to work closely with Japanese companies, and is likely to develop relationships that could prove valuable in the future should the former mayor again return to investment banking.
Emanuel will be the latest in a long line of high-profile diplomats to hold the Japan ambassadorship. The Japanese are said to covet an ambassador with close ties to the president, and Emanuel certainly meets that standard after serving with then-Vice President Biden in the Obama White House and informally advising him during the 2020 campaign.
Emanuel enters the role with the most political and government experience since Howard H. Baker Jr., the former Republican Senate majority leader who was former President Ronald Reagan’s chief of staff before becoming ambassador to Japan under former President George W. Bush. Former Vice President Walter Mondale was ambassador to Japan in the Clinton administration, while Obama chose California fundraiser and businessman John Roos for the post, followed by Caroline Kennedy, daughter of former President John F. Kennedy.
The Tokyo-bound Emanuel will take over a foreign post that has been vacant for more than two years. Hagerty resigned in July 2019 as Trump’s ambassador in Tokyo to run for Senate. Trump never appointed a replacement.
In voicing his support for Emanuel, Hagerty said the former mayor “shares my unwavering conviction that the U.S.-Japan relationships is the cornerstone for peace and prosperity in the Indo-Pacific region.”
“It’s a region that’s becoming even more dangerous day by day and that makes the position of U.S. ambassador to Japan all the more important for the United States,” the Tennessee Republican said. “This is a position that has remained vacant for far too long.”
During his confirmation hearing, senators raised everything from North Korean ballistic missile tests in the region and China’s increasing aggressiveness in the South China Sea to the need to preserve Taiwan’s independence and crack down on intellectual property theft from Beijing.
In response, Emanuel said the U.S. is at a “critical juncture” with its foreign policy in the region.
“China, Russia, North Korea are trying to find cracks and fissures in the alliances between the United States and Japan and South Korea,” Emanuel said. “Our job as a facilitator is to create the bonds of unity that we speak with one voice, one interest. This is one of, if not the highest priority — to find that unity so we can confront the attempt by China and North Korea to divide us.”
In deciding to vote for Emanuel Saturday, Duckworth noted how long the ambassadorship had been left vacant.
“We desperately need an ambassador in Japan. This is a part of the world that is under continued stress from the People’s Republic of China, both on a national security footing but also economically in terms of supply chain,” Duckworth said. “So, it would be really good to get an ambassador in that position, and this is who the president has picked. So, I will support the president.”
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