Biden seems set to pick fight over Rahm Emanuel

Former Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel appears poised to take on a high-profile ambassadorship for President Biden, a step likely to trigger contention with progressives who’ve balked at him taking a Cabinet role.

Emanuel is the front-runner to be Biden’s nominee as ambassador to Japan, sources familiar with the matter told The Hill.

He’s also being considered for the post in China, but sources said Japan is the more likely landing spot for former President Obama’s chief of staff. Former State Department official Nicholas Burns is the likely front-runner to end up in Beijing.

The diplomatic role in Asia would mark a high-profile return to the federal government for Emanuel, who built a reputation as a brash but effective political tactician in the Democratic Party.

Emanuel led Democrats to the House majority in 2006, working closely with Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) to return the party to power for the first time since the Gingrich revolution in that cycle.

The wins preceded Obama’s presidential victory in 2008 and even bigger gains in the House. Emanuel, once thought to be a future Speaker himself, ended up working with Obama at the White House before jumping into the Chicago mayor’s race and winning after longtime Mayor Richard Daley announced he would not run again.

But his time as Chicago mayor, and his handling of the 2014 shooting of teenager Laquan McDonald in particular, has made him toxic among progressive Democrats, some of whom already were at odds with him over other past positions.

“If Rahm gets nominated he will have staunch allies, but he will have critics on the left and the right,” said one former Biden aide.

A White House spokesperson declined to comment on Emanuel’s potential nomination, and one source said they did not expect Biden to nominate Emanuel imminently, citing the need to prioritize passing coronavirus relief and confirm other Cabinet nominees.

Emanuel has maintained strong ties with members of Biden’s orbit. He was previously floated as potential Transportation secretary during the transition, and he has offered outside guidance in the early weeks of the Biden administration. 

Yet some of that guidance has also drawn raised eyebrows from the left.

Emanuel wrote a Wall Street Journal op-ed last week titled “Why Joe Biden Needs Bipartisanship” in which he urged the president to consider “the political risk of steamrolling the GOP” and to package Republican priorities with some of his own policy proposals.

One longtime Biden adviser said Emanuel has always had a good relationship with Biden.

“He was very helpful the whole way through,” the adviser said. 

Emanuel frequently checked in with Biden aides throughout the presidential campaign to assist behind the scenes with fundraising and building political support, one adviser said. 

Emanuel also was “instrumental” in helping to bring Obama and Biden closer during the Obama presidency, this source said.

He wanted the two men to have their weekly lunches, the adviser said.

“And when he was building out the apparatus, he took extra steps to make sure Biden was included and brought into conversations. He knew better than anyone that Biden has relationships on the Hill and he valued his record,” the adviser said.

Japan has been seen as a top diplomatic post. Past ambassadors to Japan include the 1984 Democratic presidential nominee Walter Mondale, the legendary GOP senator Howard Baker and Caroline Kennedy.

But some officials questioned the decision to send a political ally to a prominent diplomatic post at a time when the United States is rebuilding its global image after the Trump administration. 

“The argument for appointing Rahm or any political veteran is they’re going to have easier access to the president and senior leaders at the White House,” said Brett Bruen, who served as director of global engagement during the Obama administration. “But Biden has promised that he’s going to elevate and trust diplomatic experience. So that shouldn’t be a problem in this administration.”

Emanuel’s eventual confirmation hearing is likely to be a contentious affair. While the former congressman may still have allies on Capitol Hill and be viewed as a moderate, members of both parties are likely to take issue with his time as mayor of Chicago.

Republicans have held up the city as a bastion of gun violence whenever they have attacked Democratic leadership on the issue, and progressives view Emanuel’s role in withholding video of the shooting of McDonald as a stain on his record.

“What is so hard to understand about this? Rahm Emanuel helped cover up the murder of Laquan McDonald. Covering up a murder is disqualifying for public leadership,” Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) tweeted when Emanuel was first floated for a Cabinet position. “This is not about the ‘visibility’ of a post. It is shameful and concerning that he is even being considered.”


Tags Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez Barack Obama Biden transition Chicago China Japan Joe Biden Nancy Pelosi
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