Live Updates: Confirmation Hearings for U.S. Ambassadors to China and Japan

R. Nicholas Burns, the nominee for U.S. ambassador to China, is facing the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. Then Rahm Emanuel, the nominee for U.S. ambassador to Japan, will face the panel amid objections by some Democrats over his handling of a killing of a Black teenager by police in 2014.,

ImageSenator Robert Menendez, Democrat of New Jersey and the  chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, during a Senate hearing in September.
Senator Robert Menendez, Democrat of New Jersey and the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, during a Senate hearing in September. Credit…Pool photo by Kevin Dietsch

The Senate Foreign Relations Committee, which on Wednesday considers some high-profile diplomatic nominations, has often been a decorous debating society, but Rahm Emanuel and R. Nicholas Burns, President Biden’s picks for ambassadorial posts in Japan and China might be facing a wilder ride.

The collision of events — escalating tensions with China and global supply chain interruptions — will likely dominate the questioning of Mr. Burns, who has served as a diplomat under presidents of both parties.

Mr. Emanuel, the combative former Chicago mayor, will face the panel on the seventh anniversary of the killing of a Black teenager, Laquan McDonald, by a white city police officer.

The committee is chaired by Senator Robert Menendez, a New Jersey Democrat who ripped Mr. Biden’s chaotic withdrawal from Afghanistan. While Mr. Menendez is likely to back both nominees, he is also less inclined to play the human-shield role adopted by other committee chairs in defense of the president’s nominees.

The ranking Republican on the committee, Senator Jim Risch of Idaho, gets along well with Mr. Menendez and has been working on legislation to stiffen the U.S. response to a range of actions by Beijing, focused on strengthening regional military coordination and a more aggressive approach to intellectual property theft.

Mr. Risch has not said how he will vote on either nominee, but he has said his meetings with both have been cordial — and other Republicans on the committee, including Senator Bill Hagerty, Republican of Tennessee, have signaled possible support for Mr. Emanuel.

Mr. Burns is likely to face more intense policy questioning, but is almost certain to garner more support on the Republican side, having known some committee members for decades, including Senator Rob Portman of Ohio, who served with him under President George W. Bush.

The fireworks are likely to come from two former 2016 Republican presidential candidates — Senator Marco Rubio of Florida, who has slammed Mr. Biden’s team as dangerously weak on foreign affairs, and Senator Ted Cruz of Texas, who is likely to come hard after both nominees. Mr. Emanuel, who is known for an aggressive and sometimes abrasive style, has been coached to engage in the least confrontational way possible, according to a person involved in his preparations

But the most difficult moments for Mr. Emanuel might not come from Republicans.

Several of the Democrats on the panel, particularly Senator Cory Booker of New Jersey, one of the most outspoken members of his party on the issue of police violence, are likely to press him for a more detailed explanation of actions in the wake of the murder of Mr. McDonald on Oct. 20, 2014.

Jonathan Eric Kaplan, the nominee to be ambassador to Singapore, is also set to appear before the Senate panel on Wednesday.

Rahm Emanuel, then the mayor of Chicago, in 2018.Credit…Alyssa Schukar for The New York Times

Former Mayor Rahm Emanuel of Chicago, President Biden’s nominee for United States ambassador to Japan, faces a Senate confirmation hearing Wednesday — seven years to the day after a white city police officer murdered Laquan McDonald, a Black teenager, prompting protests and accusations of a cover-up.

Mr. Emanuel, a brash and hard-driving former Democratic congressman from Illinois who served as President Barack Obama’s first chief of staff, is expected to be confirmed, with the support of several Republicans, including Senators Susan Collins of Maine and Lindsey Graham of South Carolina.

But he is likely to face questions during his hearing before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee over his handling of the McDonald case, particularly the delayed release of police footage showing Officer Jason Van Dyke killing Mr. McDonald, 17, on Oct. 20, 2014.

The city released dashboard camera footage over a year later, after a judge intervened. The footage showed the officer firing the weapon 16 times as the teenager, who was carrying a knife, walked along, veering away from the officer.

The city agreed to pay his family a $5 million settlement, and Mr. Van Dyke was eventually convicted of a second-degree murder charge.

Mr. Emanuel, 61, who has repeatedly defended his actions, said he never saw the footage until it was released publicly, and maintains that the case led to long-overdue reforms in the department, including the use of body cameras and implementation of de-escalation policies.

Dashcam footage showed Laquan McDonald moments before being fatally shot by Officer Jason Van Dyke in 2014.Credit…Chicago Police Department, via Associated Press

But the episode seriously weakened his political standing in Chicago, the nation’s third-largest city, and might have played in role in his decision not to seek a third term.

Several high-profile progressives, including Representatives Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York, Mondaire Jones of New York and Cori Bush of Missouri, have called on Senate Democrats to reject his nomination over his record on race relations and policing during his eight years as mayor.

“Rahm Emanuel covered up the murder of Laquan McDonald,” Ms. Bush wrote on Twitter when his nomination was announced in August. “He must be disqualified from ever holding an appointed position in any administration.”

On Wednesday, representatives of Indivisible Chicago, a liberal group organized to oppose the Trump administration, held a demonstration calling for Mr. Emanuel to be rejected.

Mr. Emanuel, who helped hammer through the Affordable Care Act and financial rescue measures during his tenure in the West Wing, has been huddling with senators for the past week, meetings that have mostly focused on trade and security issues, according to administration officials.

The former mayor, who spearheaded the Democratic take back of the House in 2006, has the support of the two Illinois senators, Richard J. Durbin and Tammy Duckworth.

The White House press secretary, Jen Psaki — who worked closely with Mr. Emanuel during the Obama years — did not say if Mr. Biden has discussed the McDonald case with him when pressed by reporters on Tuesday.

The president “knew his record, longstanding, prior to the nomination,” Ms. Psaki said.

The committee will also deliberate over the nomination of Nicholas Burns, a veteran diplomat, to serve as Mr. Biden’s ambassador to China, and Jonathan Eric Kaplan to be the U.S. ambassador to Singapore.

Rahm Emanuel at a council meeting in City Hall, when he was mayor of Chicago in 2016.Credit…Joshua Lott for The New York Times

When Rahm Emanuel approached the end of his tenure as a famously combative mayor of Chicago, his hometown, he was praised for his ferocious drive to lure more business to the city, expand public transit, help transform a promenade along the Chicago River and boost graduation rates for public school children.

But the list of criticisms of his eight years in office was just as long: his handling of the death of Laquan McDonald, a Black teenager, after he was murdered by a white police officer; his closing of dozens of public schools and mental health clinics; and his failure to solve the city’s intractable struggles with gun violence.

When Mr. Emanuel announced in 2018 that he would not run for re-election, Chicago was stunned — and unaccustomed to a mayor who would depart the perch voluntarily after only two terms, rather than more than two decades, in the fashion of former Mayor Richard M. Daley. Political observers wondered if his tenure had been too marred to successfully win a third term, and he was opting to avoid a difficult contest.

Mr. Emanuel’s departure left a wide-open race, a rarity in Chicago mayoral politics. He was succeeded by Lori Lightfoot, who was elected in 2019 as the first Black woman to lead the city.

Ms. Lightfoot, a former federal prosecutor who entered office as a police reformer, has grappled with many of the same difficulties that Mr. Emanuel did: feuds with unions representing teachers and police officers, the city’s perilous finances and gun violence. (Unlike Mr. Emanuel, she has also had to lead the city through a pandemic.)

But Mr. Emanuel could claim an unexpected victory long after he left office: Census data released in 2020 revealed that Chicago’s population grew nearly 2 percent during his tenure, keeping its spot as the nation’s third-largest city.

Japan is a member of the Quad, an alliance that includes the United States, India and Australia, and serves as a strategic counterweight against Beijing.Credit…Kiichiro Sato/Associated Press

If confirmed as U.S. ambassador to Japan, Rahm Emanuel will play a key role in a core element of President Biden’s foreign policy: countering the power of a rising China.

Japan is among America’s closest allies, and is an anchor of American influence in the Pacific. It is a member of the Quad, an alliance that also includes the United States, India and Australia, and serves as a strategic counterweight against Beijing, which in recent years has staked increasing political, economic and territorial claims across Asia.

China’s rise has particularly unnerved Japan, a nation with limited armed forces that also relies on the United States — which has some 50,000 troops based in the country — for protection against a bellicose North Korea. Japan has also been wary of a shift in American political sentiment, fueled by former President Donald J. Trump’s talk of freeloading allies and charging money for U.S. military protection.

As ambassador, Mr. Emanuel could be particularly valuable to the Biden administration thanks to recent political upheaval in Tokyo, which saw the surprise departure last year, because of health reasons, of Japan’s longest-serving prime minister, Shinzo Abe. Mr. Abe’s successor is already about to be replaced with another unfamiliar face, leaving the Biden administration in need of fresh and reliable intelligence on the country’s leadership. The United States has not had a Senate-approved ambassador in Tokyo for more than two years.

From Tokyo’s perspective, Mr. Emanuel’s selection was a generally welcome one. In September, the English-language Japan Times noted that Mr. Emanuel, who was President Barack Obama’s first chief of staff, is “known for his sharp tongue,” but wrote that he is close to Mr. Biden, “providing Tokyo with what could amount to a direct line to the White House.”

The paper noted that his nomination “signals the importance the administration places on the U.S. alliance with Japan as Washington continues to lay the groundwork for a strategy to deal with challenges presented by China.”

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