U.S. President Joe Biden will tap former Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel, who served as White House chief of staff for former President Barack Obama, as his ambassador to Japan, a report said Tuesday.
The decision to nominate Emanuel, known more for his sharp tongue than his foreign policy chops, is expected to be formally announced later this month, the Financial Times reported, citing eight people familiar with White House discussions.
The Biden administration did not immediately respond to a request for confirmation.
Nominating Emanuel to the post would signal the importance the Biden administration places on the U.S. alliance with Tokyo as Washington lays the groundwork for a strategy to deal with challenges presented by China.
Tokyo, despite urging Washington to quickly appoint an envoy, has not had a Senate-approved ambassador from the U.S. since William Hagerty left the post in July 2019. With the pick of Emanuel, Biden will be hoping to rectify this situation.
Highlighting the significance of the two allies’ relationship, Biden used his first in-person meeting with a foreign leader to hold summit talks with Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga last month. Just a month before that, Biden’s secretary of state and defense chief held so-called two-plus-two talks with their Japanese counterparts in Tokyo that were largely focused on China.
While the outspoken Emanuel — who once emulated a scene from “The Godfather” by sending his enemy a dead fish — could prove an unnerving pick for polite Tokyo, the Democratic heavyweight does have the one thing foreign capitals hope all U.S. ambassadors bring along with their credentials: the ear of the president.
Sebastian Maslow, an expert on Japanese politics at Sendai Shirayuri Women’s University, said the reported nomination should be viewed through the lens of “the Biden administration’s attempt to renew U.S. commitments to its traditional allies.”
He said that although Japan “might be worried about Emmanuel’s temperament … Tokyo will certainly emphasize his long-standing role within the Obama and Biden White Houses, which should help Japan to establish a solid channel for managing the alliance.”
The pick should also reassure Tokyo on the trade front.
Emanuel was a fervent supporter of the Obama administration’s push for the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade deal, which was later quashed by then-President Donald Trump and revived by Japan as the 11-nation Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership.
In a February 2014 interview, Emanuel cited a rationale for rejoining the TPP deal that may still be palatable to some: national security.
“Everybody in the Joint Chiefs supports it. Why do they support it? Because it’s either tanks or cars,” he told CBS News. “And I’d rather be exporting cars than trying to figure out how we’re gonna move tanks over there or send five (aircraft) carriers there.”
Japan has said it hopes for the return of the U.S. to the agreement, though the Biden administration has shown little interest.
Media reports earlier this year had said Emanuel had been in line for either the post to China or Japan.
A Chicago native, Emanuel was a Democratic lawmaker in the House of Representatives from 2003 to 2009 before he became Obama’s chief of staff in 2009. He left the White House in October 2010 to run for mayor of Chicago, winning that election and serving two terms from 2011 to 2019.
But despite his wealth of experience, he could face a bruising confirmation battle in the Senate. Democrats maintain a majority only through the votes of two independents and the vice president.
Emanuel has also sparred with progressive Democrats, and he came under fire in March when more than two dozen left-leaning organizations announced their strong opposition to any ambassadorial nomination for him.
“Such top diplomatic posts should only go to individuals with ethics, integrity and diplomatic skills. Emanuel possesses none of those qualifications,” the groups said in a statement.
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