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Emanuel glides through Senate Foreign Relations hearing for Japan post

Joe Biden's picks for U.S. envoys in East Asia, Rahm Emanuel to Tokyo and Nicholas Burns to Beijing, saw smooth sailing before senators

Rahm Emanuel, nominee to be ambassador to Japan, testifies during his confirmation hearing in the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on Wednesday, Oct. 20.
Rahm Emanuel, nominee to be ambassador to Japan, testifies during his confirmation hearing in the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on Wednesday, Oct. 20. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)

Rahm Emanuel received a warm welcome by the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on Wednesday at his confirmation hearing for the post of ambassador to Japan, smoothing the way to his expected confirmation despite opposition from some progressives who feel he could have done more as mayor of Chicago to push for racial justice and police reform.

Only one senator, Jeff Merkley, D-Ore., questioned Emanuel at length about the 2014 fatal shooting of Laquan McDonald, a Black teenager, by a white police officer.

Emanuel, who led Chicago from 2011-19, has been criticized by members of the city’s Black community, racial justice activists and members of the House’s “Squad” of progressive lawmakers of color for initially seeming to take the side of the Chicago Police Department by declining for over a year to order the release of a dash-camera video that revealed the 17-year-old McDonald was shot 16 times while he walked away.

“I think in this time of national reckoning with the challenge of Black Lives Matter, when alderman and state representatives and state senators say this was an issue: that there was close cooperation during your time as mayor between the mayor’s office to essentially discourage the release of information and to not develop significant reforms … I think it’s important for this committee to actually weigh this,” Merkley said.

Emanuel, who was given time at the top of his confirmation hearing by Senate Foreign Relations Chairman Bob Menendez, D-N.J., to offer his side of the story, said that at the time he was following the standard practice of the day not to release evidence while an official investigation was ongoing that could potentially prejudice witnesses and endanger a prosecution.

Subsequent official watchdog investigations revealed a cover-up by the police force that involved the top brass. However, Emanuel noted that neither he nor his office was found to have done anything “improper” in the McDonald killing and ensuing cover-up and investigations.

“In the first term of my tenure I made a number of changes that dealt with [police] oversight, accountability,” Emanuel said. “It is clear to me those changes were inadequate to the level of distrust. They were on the best marginal. I thought I was addressing the issue, and I clearly missed the level of distrust and skepticism that existed, and that’s on me.”

But Merkley pressed him for details, which were not forthcoming from Emanuel, a former top House lawmaker known for his short temper and tough political tactics, on when he first learned critical details about the nature of McDonald’s killing.

“You are saying you had no idea of the circumstances of the shooting? No one had told you that a child had been shot 16 times or that the child was lying on the ground or that a revolver was reloaded,” Merkley asked.

“The family requested the video; the city attorney reached out proactively before there was a lawsuit to ask for a settlement; the [$5 million] settlement was approved in a less-than-one-minute [city council] meeting with no public discussion,” Merkley continued. “It seems hard to believe that all of those things happened and yet you were never briefed on the details of the situation when you were leading the city.”

With no other senators showing much interest in probing the particulars of the McDonald killing and the police cover-up, which have been in the public domain for years and a subject of heated intra-Democratic debate for nearly as long, Emanuel spent the bulk of his hearing happily discussing why he views Japan as so critical to long-term U.S. policy in the Indo-Pacific.

“What we build in partnership with Japan over the next three years will determine America’s posture for the next 30,” predicted Emanuel. “The challenges and opportunities we face underscore the imperative of strengthening our bonds with our closest ally, Japan.”

Ahead of looming national elections, Japan’s ruling party, the Liberal Democratic Party, last week pledged to increase defense spending to 2 percent of gross domestic product, or roughly $100 billion.

Though fulfilling that goal wouldn’t happen for some time, and it’s not known how Tokyo would allocate such a ramped-up defense budget, the news was welcomed warmly on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, where getting foreign allies to increase their defense spending to the 2 percent GDP marker has long been a bipartisan aspiration.

Contrary to what many may believe in Washington, it is Japan and not China that is actually the biggest foreign investor in infrastructure projects in the Indo-Pacific, by a margin of about $75 billion, Emanuel said. “That’s a big asset with our ally. If you do polling among the public in the region, Japan is the most popular in the region.”

“The Japan-U.S. relationship requires that an ambassador go to Japan and the Japanese understand this is somebody who is very close to the president, that they really want to see an ambassador who has a direct line to the president, and you do, and I believe that’s the reason you’ve been chosen,” observed Sen. Tim Kaine, D-Va.

Emanuel was introduced by Republican committee member Bill Hagerty of Tennessee, himself an ambassador to Japan during the Trump administration.

“It’s become clear to me that Mayor Emanuel shares my own unwavering conviction that the U.S.-Japan relationship is the cornerstone for peace and prosperity in the entire Indo-Pacific region,” Hagerty said, noting he would vote to approve Emanuel, a former three-term House lawmaker.

Burns tries to buck up Congress over China

The Foreign Relations Committee also held a confirmation hearing Wednesday for Nicholas Burns, a longtime diplomat and former ambassador to NATO and Greece, who Biden named to be ambassador to China.

Burns is well-known by Congress, having served in multiple Senate-confirmed diplomatic roles across both Republican and Democratic administrations.

With his confirmation by a wide bipartisan margin all but assured, Burns spent the bulk of his confirmation hearing not seeking to make the case for why he should be approved but rather trying to buck up lawmaker morale over the quandary of how best to counter China.

“The People’s Republic of China is not an Olympian power. It’s a country of extraordinary strength, but it also has substantial weaknesses and challenges,” Burns said, noting the country faces serious demographic and economic challenges, among others.

He repeatedly stressed that the biggest advantage the United States has in its long-term competition with China is that Washington has many friends and treaty allies, whereas Beijing has no formal allies, just smaller countries it tries to bully into complying with its wishes.

“I think the Chinese have, by being so aggressive, they have now stirred up a lot of opposition to them, and I think we ought not to exaggerate their strengths or underestimate the strengths of the United States,” said Burns, who before his retirement held the State Department’s No. 3 position as undersecretary of State for political affairs. “What we need is self-confidence that the United States is a strong country, and I do think our values are the strongest part of our strategy towards China.”

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