Rahm Emanuel Gets Heated With Reporters, Says He Has No Plans to Resign

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Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel listens to remarks from an attendee at a town hall meeting on the city budget on August 31. He has faced significant backlash over his handling of the killing of a black teenager by a Chicago police officer in October 2014, when he was up for re-election. Jim Young/REUTERS

It was about 9 a.m. in Illinois when Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel sat down with Politico's Mike Allen and Natasha Korecki to talk about the 2014 shooting of Laquan McDonald, a black teenager, by a police officer and the city's subsequent handling of the case.

Despite the relatively early start time, nobody needed coffee at this onstage event with an audience. Emanuel was audibly, and at times visibly, frustrated with Allen's and Korecki's questions, particularly when they asked him about his own responsibility in the subsequent handling of the incident.

"You're reflecting the immediacy of cable television," Emanuel told Korecki after she asked why, as mayor, he couldn't simply speed up the legal process surrounding several different investigations. (She accused him of hiding behind "blue tape.")

It took a year for the police officer who shot McDonald to be indicted on murder charges.

Emanuel has repeatedly said the city did not release a video of the shooting out of concern that making the evidence public would compromise an ongoing investigation into the incident.

"This set of principles and rules" about balancing the "integrity of the process" with public transparency "are practiced all over the country, and other cities are dealing with this," Emanuel said.

His harshest critics, including the New York Times editorial board, believe the mayor delayed releasing the video to help with his re-election prospects in April 2014. The Times and other media outlets have sung the praises of the Chicago Tribune for suing the city for the video's release, and a Times op-ed implied that journalists' suits were directly responsible for the footage going public. But in reality the video came out only under a court order, at the behest of the Illinois attorney general's office.

"Today, we live in a different time," Emanuel said, insofar as the public's desire and need for information is greater than it was decades ago, when police investigatory practices were developed and problematic cultures were formed.

The city settled with McDonald's mother for $5 million, and reports suggest she did not want the video released out of fear that it would provoke riots. With the exception of a handful of arrests, the protests that followed the release have been mostly peaceful.

Demonstrators are now calling for various people to lose their jobs. Emanuel recently fired Police Superintendent Garry McCarthy, whose presence in the job, he said, had become "a distraction."

"The superintendent was becoming the issue rather than dealing with the issue," which is a deeply embedded tension between police officers and the community that goes back decades, the mayor argued.

Asked by Korecki and Allen if he had considered answering calls to resign, Emanuel replied, "No...because I really looked forward to this interview and wanted to have it."

A former Obama White House chief of staff, Emanuel doesn't exactly cut a sympathetic figure to most of the media. At one point, Allen told him, "You have a rather heartless image among a fair number of people." Emanuel looked angered by the accusation and shot back, "I'm sure you would know this, Mike...we're all more complex...than we're presented." Allen, a longtime White House correspondent, was recently criticized after a Gawker story revealed that he had promised to agree to advance questions for a Chelsea Clinton interview.

"I'm comfortable with who I am and what I've done," Emanuel said.

The FBI is investigating the Chicago Police Department with the U.S. Department of Justice, and Emanuel said he has ordered the police commission to look at updating its practices to streamline discipline in incidents such as the shooting, which has been deemed an execution by journalists and McDonald's attorneys.

Much like the NFL's infamous Ray Rice case, in which many accused Commissioner Roger Goodell of covering up the existence of security camera footage of a domestic violence incident, information about the shooting was available to Emanuel and the press before the video's release. The "execution" description was already being used in the media before anyone had seen the visual evidence, and some key information was available to support the accuracy of that description. For example, it was known that the officer shot McDonald 16 times and that the 17-year-old fell to the ground after the initial one or two shots.

Similarly, the NFL and the sports media knew that former Baltimore Ravens running back Ray Rice had knocked his wife unconscious by punching her before they saw the footage of him actually doing it.

In the controversy that has surrounded Emanuel's leadership, the video itself has become the point of interest, at least for the national media. The delayed release has been called a cover-up, and the American Civil Liberties Union has launched its own investigation into the Chicago Police Department, which protesters and black leaders have said has a systemically racist culture.

Emanuel argued that because he was under no legal order to release the video, it was best to let the investigations unfold without taking the initiative to release it himself. A year ago, he shared the victim's mother's concerns about the potential backlash. Korecki asked him directly whether he thought it would have affected his bid for re-election, but he refused to answer that hypothetical question.

Since the Chicago Tribune was at the forefront of demands for the video's release, the issue has increasingly been framed as the media and journalists versus a powerful politician, and that tone was extremely evident during the Politico interview.

"This has to be a sustained set of changes" to a problem in policing culture that goes back at least 50 years, Emanuel argued. He didn't seem to think a change in leadership would be the jumping-off point for lasting change to the department, and the conversation only briefly touched on the steps the city is taking to reduce tensions between police officers and communities.

After a tense back-and-forth, interruptions of both questions and answers, and some rather Barack Obama-like remarks ("as I said before," "as I just said" and "I'll say this again"), Emanuel finally went off on Allen after the journalist asked him what was intended to be a softball closing question about his family's upcoming vacation plans, and in the process revealed their travel destination.

"My family's trips are my family's," the mayor snapped. Emanuel apparently either wanted the information under wraps or was using an old conversational tactic to undermine his questioner. Given the recent revelations about Allen's private meetings with subjects prior to interviews, it struck a nerve.

"I told you that in private...that's now public," the mayor said. "I am now voicing my displeasure."

Allen looked embarrassed by the slipup, but his apologies fell on unsympathetic ears.

The vacation is still on, Emanuel assured him, "if my wife doesn't kill me now because of what you just did."