A Reckoning for Rahm
CHICAGO -- Plenty of important questions still need to be answered about the tragic killing of Laquan McDonald by a Chicago police officer in October 2014 and the 13-month cover up that followed. Perhaps the most important is the old Watergate question asked of Richard Nixon when he was president: What did the mayor know and when did he know it?
Barring the appearance of a modern-day Deep Throat, we may never learn the true answer to that question.
What we already know about the case is bad enough: The police department issued a false public statement, filed a misleading police report about the incident, and apparently tampered with video evidence the night of the killing. We know that Cook County State’s Attorney Anita Alvarez says she kept the dash-cam footage of the shooting under wraps at the behest of the Justice Department, which the feds have denied. We know that the City Council negotiated a $5 million taxpayer-funded settlement with the McDonald family earlier this year -- a payment ratified shortly after Rahm Emanuel’s re-election -- that included a clause to keep the footage of the young man’s killing secret.
So where was the city’s most powerful figure this whole time? Working hard to maintain plausible deniability, apparently. Asked this week why he never watched the video, Emanuel responded that “reporters would say, ‘If you got to see it, why doesn’t the public get to see it?’ ” Viewing it, the mayor claimed, would have “compromised the integrity of the investigation,” which assumes this investigation had any integrity to begin with.
The fallout from the cascading revelations of the killing and coverup began on Monday, when Police Superintendent Garry McCarthy was offered up for sacrifice days after declaring he would not step aside. Alvarez is also facing mounting pressure to resign, and may be next.
Emanuel has casually brushed off the small but growing chorus of calls for his own resignation, and the city’s Democratic Party machine has a track record of protecting its leader.
But Rahm Emanuel is not only Chicago’s mayor. He is a former top aide to the Clintons, a onetime prominent member of the congressional House leadership, and a confidant of Barack Obama, whom he served as White House chief of staff. His actions, in other words, reflect on the Democratic Party—and this is the season of presidential politics.
Even his most staunch political allies are keeping their distance. The White House refused to come to Emanuel’s defense Wednesday, as the president’s spokesman punted on a reporter’s question of whether Obama thought the mayor should step down. “That’s a decision for Mayor Emanuel and the voters of Chicago to make,” said White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest.
The same day, Hillary Clinton joined the call for a federal investigation of the Chicago Police Department, a step that Emanuel had previously described as “misguided.” By Thursday afternoon, the mayor was issuing a “clarification,” saying that he “welcomes engagement by the Department of Justice when it comes to looking at the systemic issues embedded in CPD.”
Emanuel has always been a savvy and ruthless political operator, but it will take more than political maneuvering to address the gross violation of public trust this case has created throughout the city. Already viewed with lukewarm skepticism by members of the African-American community, many of whom held their noses and voted for his re-election, Emanuel has seen his credibility and clout take a serious hit. It will take far more than a blue-ribbon commission, a new police chief, and some soothing words to repair.
Emanuel still has three years left in office. If he can't or doesn't take the steps necessary to heal this wound, he will serve out the rest of his second term as a zombie mayor, powerless to persuade allies or intimidate enemies, unable to tackle any of the city's truly vexing problems.
At another time, in a different context, Rahm Emanuel famously suggested that in politics “you never want a serious crisis to go to waste.” With the killing of Laquan McDonald and subsequent coverup, Emanuel is facing the biggest crisis of his political career. He may well survive it, but it's hard to see how he fully recovers from it.