Why Lindsey Graham is Trying to Rescue Rahm Emanuel  

With civil rights groups and progressive members of Congress staunchly opposed to disgraced former Chicago mayor Rahm Emanuel becoming a prestigious ambassador, Emanuel is appealing for support from a set of politicians he has repeatedly relied on in his career: Republicans.

Worried that certain Democratic senators will refuse to back him because of his administration’s infamous cover-up of a horrendous police murderof a black teenager – and other injustices against people of color in Chicago – Emanuel is now busy lining up GOP senators who will confirm him as the next U.S. ambassador to Japan. On Saturday, the Washington Post described Emanuel’s campaign for Republican help as “an aggressive behind-the-scenes effort”; the article’s headline: “Rahm Emanuel, a target of the left, may be rescued by Republicans.”

Three GOP senators told the Post that they will proudly vote to confirm Emanuel, including that pillar of integrity: Lindsey Graham of South Carolina.

One of Donald Trump’s most sycophantic allies in the Senate, Graham ran cover for Trump during both impeachment trials. That didn’t stop Graham from repeatedly calling last month for Biden’s impeachment over Afghanistan. I’m not kidding.

Graham was also a crucial and dishonest ally of Mitch McConnell in the right-wing takeover of the U.S. Supreme Court.

Now, Graham is an important ally in Emanuel’s campaign for ambassador to Japan.

This is not the first time Rahm Emanuel has turned to Republicans for rescue. The GOP rescued him in 1993, when he was a key White House aide, as the Clinton administration rammed the NAFTA trade pact though Congress. Most Democrats in Congress – responding to the base of the party, including union and environmental activists – voted no on NAFTA. Years later, Emanuel was still bragging about his role in NAFTA’s passage.

In 1996, when Republicans in Congress passed a punitive “welfare reform” bill that ended the Aid to Families with Dependent Children program, Emanuel was one of the loudest voices in a divided White House urging Clinton not to veto the bill. The president signed it, provoking anger among progressives and high-level resignations from the administration.

Having entered national politics in 1992 as the top fundraiser from corporate types for Bill Clinton’s first presidential run, Emanuel became known inside the White House for proposing conservative approaches to what were then called “wedge issues” – now known as “dog-whistle racism.” Emanuel urged Clinton to get “tough” on crime and on immigration through more deportations.

After leaving the Clinton White House, Emanuel worked for a Wall Street firm out of Chicago, making $18 million in 30 months. He then served three terms in Congress before becoming the White House chief of staff under Barack Obama, where he was a strident foe of progressives. At a 2010 meeting with liberal leaders who were planning to pressure conservative Democrats toward supporting healthcare reform, Emanuel – ever the diplomat – referred to them as “fucking retarded.”

Perhaps it’s no surprise that Emanuel is gaining support from the likes of Lindsey Graham.

What is surprising is that the Biden White House, with lagging popularity in the polls, is willing to shove its most loyal base – voters and activists of color – under the bus in order to fight for Emanuel’s confirmation. Team Biden finds itself allied with Republicans on behalf of a former scandal-plagued mayor notorious for closing 50 public schools, as well as mental health clinics, in predominantly black and brown neighborhoods in Chicago.

And then there’s the issue of unaccountable police misconduct under Emanuel and the suppressed dashcam video showing the police murder of 17-year-old Laquan McDonald, shot 16 times by a police officer as he walked away from the officer. The video was conveniently suppressed for 13 months, through the duration of Emanuel’s 2015 reelection campaign. After a judge’s order finally forced the city of Chicago to release the video, a local poll showed that most Chicagoans wanted Mayor Emanuel to resign and few believed that he hadn’t seen the video prior to the court’s order.

The kind of police video suppression that occurred under Rahm Emanuel would have been outlawed under the “George Floyd Justice in Policing Act of 2020” that was cosponsored by more than 30 Democratic senators.

Either Joe Biden and those Democratic senators actually stand for the principle that “black lives matter” or they stand for Rahm Emanuel. They can’t stand for both.

While several Republican senators have publicly declared their support for Emanuel as ambassador, not one Democrat in the Senate has declared opposition. So far, the silence is deafening. And will be disgraceful if it continues despite all the anti-Rahm outrage coming from black and brown Democrats in the House – from Jamaal Bowman to Cori Bush to Mondaire Jones to AOC.

When he worked in Washington D.C., the bullying and exceedingly undiplomatic Emanuel earned the nickname “Rahmbo.” He’s the wrong person to be sent to Japan and a region brimming with tensions. If he’s given a pass and allowed to fail upward into this ambassadorship, it will speak horribly of our country. And of Democrats in the Senate who let it happen.


Jeff Cohen was director of the Park Center for Independent Media at Ithaca College and cofounder of the online activism group RootsAction.org.