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Rahm Emanuel addresses handling of Chicago police shooting during ambassador hearing


The Black Lives Matter movement and police reform aren't usually the kind of topics that come up in a Senate hearing for a U.S. ambassador. But Biden's pick to serve in Japan is former Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel, and his confirmation hearing coincided with the anniversary of a fatal police shooting of a Black teenager while he was mayor. NPR's Michele Kelemen reports.

MICHELE KELEMEN, BYLINE: Seven years ago today, 17-year-old Laquan McDonald was killed as he ran away from police in Chicago. Some Democrats on Capitol Hill argue that Rahm Emanuel's handling of that case when he was mayor should disqualify him to serve as America's top diplomat in Japan. His administration refused to make public the police dashcam video of the killing for more than a year until compelled by a court. Emanuel told senators that was the protocol at the time.


RAHM EMANUEL: A grave tragedy occurred seven years ago to this day on the streets of the city of Chicago. And that tragedy sits with me, as it has every day and every week for the last seven years.

KELEMEN: Senator Jeff Merkley, a Democrat from Oregon, says it's important to examine the former mayor's record at a time when America is grappling with systemic racism and police brutality. A dozen Chicago officials wrote a letter to the Foreign Relations Committee calling the nomination a disgrace. But while Merkley pressed the issue, others stuck to Asia policy in today's hearing. Senator Bill Hagerty, who was Trump's ambassador to Japan, endorsed Biden's pick for the job.


BILL HAGERTY: Mayor Emanuel shares my unwavering conviction that the U.S.-Japan relationship is the cornerstone for peace and prosperity in the entire Indo-Pacific region. It's a region that's become even more dangerous day by day.

KELEMEN: That was a major theme of a separate hearing today with Biden's pick to serve as U.S. ambassador to China. Nicholas Burns is a former ambassador to NATO and career diplomat who now teaches at Harvard University.


NICHOLAS BURNS: We want to compete with China, but we don't want to find ourselves, in the words of my Harvard colleague Joe Nye, being sleepwalkers into a conflict with China.

KELEMEN: Burns says if confirmed as ambassador, he'll work to improve communication channels with China. He also hit on points that many senators wanted to hear. He accused China of stonewalling on the investigation into the coronavirus pandemic. He said China's genocide against Uyghur Muslims, its pressure on Hong Kong and the bullying of Taiwan must stop.


BURNS: Given China's frankly objectionable statements towards Taiwan, I think the Congress and the executive branch have every right to continue to deepen our security cooperation, to expand our arms provisions to Taiwan.

KELEMEN: Senator Ted Cruz, a China hawk, encouraged Burns to do more to support Taiwan. But while Burns seems to have support on both sides of the aisle, he may have a long road to confirmation. Senator Cruz is holding up nearly all ambassadorial nominees because he's furious with the Biden administration's policy on a Russian gas pipeline to Europe. Michele Kelemen, NPR News, the State Department.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Michele Kelemen has been with NPR for two decades, starting as NPR's Moscow bureau chief and now covering the State Department and Washington's diplomatic corps. Her reports can be heard on all NPR News programs, including Morning Edition and All Things Considered.
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