Rahm Emanuel is elbowing back into the national spotlight, taking on President TrumpDonald TrumpRobert Gates says 'extreme polarization' is the greatest threat to US democracy Cassidy says he won't vote for Trump if he runs in 2024 Schiff says holding Bannon in criminal contempt 'a way of getting people's attention' MORE over the contentious issue of immigration.
The combative Chicago mayor and long-time Democratic powerbroker sued the Justice Department this week over the administration’s efforts to rein in so-called sanctuary cities. Since then, he has made the rounds on the TV circuit, both to bolster his case and needle the president on one of his most prominent domestic priorities.
“Chicago will not be blackmailed into changing our values,” Emanuel said when announcing the suit.
Confronting Trump may prove to be smart politics for Emanuel, whose approval rating tanked following the outcry over the fatal 2014 shooting of an unarmed teenager by Chicago police. The mayor has struggled to rebound since then, not least because of the city’s struggles to curb a sky-high murder rate and manage a budget crisis.
But few cities in the country are more liberal than Chicago, which voted against Trump by a whopping 53-point margin in November, and some experts say Emanuel’s move to challenge the unpopular president could play to the advantage of the embattled mayor, who is up for reelection in 2019.
“The only two people more disliked in Chicago than Rahm are [Illinois GOP Gov.] Bruce Rauner and Donald Trump (by a long margin),” wrote Eric Oliver, an expert in the politics of race at the University of Chicago, in an email to The Hill.
“Trump hasn't done anything to bring the violence rate down,” he added, “so he hasn't exactly won many supporters since taking office.”
The Trump-Emanuel feud is the type of made-for-media sparring match that both men appear to relish. And neither is pulling punches.
Trump has long pointed to Chicago as a case study in what he considers lax law enforcement, vowing to reverse the trend from the White House with a tough-on-crime approach. In June, he announced a move to send federal officers to the city, citing the failure of local efforts to control the crime “epidemic.” And last month he accused Emanuel of being too soft in confronting the violence.
“What the hell is going on in Chicago?” Trump said, off-the-cuff, during a speech in Youngstown, Ohio. "Better tell that mayor to get tough, because it's not working what they're doing."
The Chicago Sun-Times, citing anonymous White House sources, has reported that Trump singles out Chicago so frequently for criticism because he enjoys getting a rise out of Emanuel, a former chief of staff to President Barack ObamaBarack Hussein ObamaAbrams targets Black churchgoers during campaign stops for McAuliffe in Virginia Virginia race looms as dark cloud over Biden's agenda The root of Joe Biden's troubles MORE and a top aide in the Clinton White House. No stranger to political combat, Emanuel has responded in turn.
The pair met in December, before Trump was sworn in, and again in February at the White House. But relations have soured since then. In June, Emanuel said Trump’s political strategy boiled down to keeping his conservative base “on amphetamines — highly charged.” And responding to the president’s Youngstown slap, the mayor suggested that it’s his brain, not the president’s brawn, that would solve Chicago’s crime problems.
“[It’s] not about being tough but being smart and strategic,” he said.
This week’s fight over sanctuary cities has both escalated the rivalry and added to the cast of characters fueling it.
Behind Attorney General Jeff SessionsJefferson (Jeff) Beauregard SessionsTrump criticizes Justice for restoring McCabe's benefits McCabe wins back full FBI pension after being fired under Trump Overnight Hillicon Valley — Apple issues security update against spyware vulnerability MORE, the Justice Department is threatening to withhold federal crimefighting grants to cities and law enforcement agencies that prohibit or discourage local cooperation with federal immigration officials.
Specifically, the administration wants to be notified at least 48 hours before undocumented immigrants are released by local authorities, and it wants federal agents to have access to local jails. Chicago has laws that bar such interactions, and the city’s suit contends the changes are both unconstitutional and violate city ordinance.
Announcing the suit, Emanuel argued that sanctuary laws are needed to encourage cooperation between local police and community residents who might otherwise stay silent for fear of being deported.
“We want residents to see the police department as partners in making their neighborhoods safe,” Emanuel told CNN on Monday. “It’s a false choice. And, I’ve said before, we will never be coerced on our values.”
Sessions wasted no time lashing back, accusing Emanuel of running “a city that refuses to help its own residents.”
"To a degree perhaps unsurpassed by any other jurisdiction, the political leadership of Chicago has chosen deliberately and intentionally to adopt a policy that obstructs this country’s lawful immigration system,” Sessions said in a statement Monday evening.
Emanuel’s prominent defense of undocumented immigrants marks something of a shift for the congressman-turned-mayor. As head of the House Democrats’ campaign arm in 2006, Emanuel steered the party away from a focus on immigration, characterizing the issue as “a third rail” that would hurt the Democrats' election chances — a sentiment he carried into Obama’s White House.
Lending credence to his strategy, the Democrats took control of the House that year, but immigrant rights advocates howled that the message would haunt the party in the long run.
Since becoming Chicago’s mayor in 2011, Emanuel has adopted a markedly different tone, reaching out to former adversaries in the immigrant community — including Chicago Rep. Luis Gutiérrez (D), who has since endorsed him — and adopting a number of reforms designed to benefit those in the country illegally. Among those efforts was the move to bar local authorities from enforcing federal immigration laws.
“Whether you cross the Atlantic, the Pacific or the Rio [Grande] … to make your way to Chicago, we welcome you here,” Emanuel told CNN. “That is the culture of this city.”
Oliver, of the University of Chicago, said Emanuel’s audience is not only Hispanics, but the many other immigrants — many of them undocumented — who call Chicago home. And because the city’s violence “tends to be concentrated in mostly black neighborhoods,” he added, Emanuel’s message could pay political dividends without raising concerns that his defense of sanctuary cities makes him soft on crime.
“Chicago also has a HUGE immigrant population and much of it is unauthorized. This includes not simply Mexicans and Central Americans but also a LOT of Eastern Europeans,” Oliver said in his email.
“Many of these folks are friends and relatives of citizens and voters.”