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Rahm Emanuel Is Back, Thanks to Some Corporate-Funded Rehabilitation Efforts

Rahm Emanuel ended his two terms as Chicago mayor in complete disgrace. Lucky for him, Washington welcomed him back into the fold with open arms — after business interests quietly funneled him millions to push their agenda.

Rahm Emanuel appearing on ABC News during coverage of Inauguration Day in January 2021. (Lorenzo Bevilaqua / ABC via Getty Images)

In 2019, Rahm Emanuel left the Chicago mayor’s office in disgrace after the public learned that his administration had suppressed video of police murdering black teenager Laquan McDonald. It didn’t take long, however, for the Washington establishment to bring him back into the fold, first welcoming him as a political pundit and now rewarding him with a potential ambassadorship.

But financial disclosures that Emanuel was required to file after President Joe Biden nominated him for ambassador to Japan shed new light on how corporate interests continued to line Emanuel’s pockets after he left office in Chicago and took to cable news to disparage progressives.

Those disclosures reveal that while he was being paid by ABC News to push a corporate agenda, Emanuel was also being paid millions by a firm that advises companies that stand to win if Biden’s agenda fails. He also received more than $300,000 for speeches to corporations and industry trade groups, as well as a board seat at a health care company benefiting from privatized Medicare coverage.

Emanuel’s continued presence in elite political and media circles, even after the cover-up of McDonald’s murder was revealed, is a testament to the Beltway’s great moral rot — a reminder that impunity protects those who are loyal and willing to serve capital.

Now, in the fight to pass the reconciliation package, corporate Democrats are following the Emanuel playbook to hold Biden’s agenda hostage, prioritizing donor interests over popular and vital policies to tackle climate change, improve health care, and reduce poverty.

$12 Million in Consulting Pay

According to Emanuel’s disclosures, he was paid more than $12 million in consulting fees by the investment banking advisory firm Centerview Partners as a “senior adviser” after leaving office in Chicago.

Since Emanuel joined Centerview in July 2019, the firm has advised a host of pharmaceutical companies, utilities, and fossil fuel companies on billions of dollars’ worth of transactions. These are the same industries that are now funding attacks on the reconciliation package.

Emanuel was routinely invited to play pundit anyway, and he used the opportunities to actively attack progressive policies without ever disclosing his relationship with the companies that would benefit if the Democratic Party rejected progressive policies and stuck to a corporatist agenda.

In September 2019, for example, as the Democratic presidential primaries were heating up, Emanuel appeared on ABC’s Sunday show and went on a tirade against Medicare for All, calling it “an untenable position for the general election.” He added that he had just biked around Lake Michigan, through the swing states of Wisconsin and Michigan, and “Nobody at a diner ran at me and said, ‘Take my health care away,’” referring to the fact that private health insurance plans would be replaced under a single-payer system.

Emanuel continued to rail against Medicare for All as it became a major issue in the Democratic primaries. “I am worried about the Democratic Party’s new focus on Medicare for All,” he wrote in an op-ed for the Washington Post in October 2019. “The merits of the policy are anything but a slam dunk, but, more immediately, the politics are a minefield.”

At the time, neither ABC nor the Post disclosed that the firm where Emanuel was working had spent the summer advising pharmaceutical clients, one of the industries most opposed to Medicare for All.

Since Emanuel joined Centerview in July 2019, the firm has had a hand in several major pharmaceutical transactions, including advising Gilead Sciences on a $5.1 billion deal and working with Mylan on a $25 billion merger with a Pfizer subsidiary, according to Centerview’s website.

While Emanuel’s disclosures don’t say whether he was involved in those specific deals, the pharmaceutical and health care companies stood to benefit from his attacks on Medicare for All. Gilead, for example, is a member of the trade association Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America (PhRMA), a group that has long been involved in lobbying against Medicare for All.

In recent years, Gilead has been accused of price-gouging drugs that it developed using government research. In 2019, the Trump administration sued Gilead for price-gouging an HIV prevention drug that was developed using taxpayer-funded research. Last year, Gilead announced it would be selling its COVID treatment drug, remdesivir, for three hundred times the cost of producing it. That drug was also developed using government research.

In 2016, Mylan — which was led by Heather Bresch, daughter of Senator Joe Manchin — was found to have used its monopoly on patent-protected EpiPen technology to raise the cost of the drug by over 500 percent over the previous decade, leading to a congressional investigation and a $345 million settlement.

Similarly, while Emanuel was attacking the Green New Deal, Centerview was landing lucrative deals with fossil fuel companies.

In November 2019, Emanuel wrote in Politico,

The Democratic candidates who have prevailed in battleground contests since 2016 didn’t embrace pie-in-the-sky policy ideas or propose a smorgasbord of new entitlements. They didn’t talk constantly about providing a guaranteed basic income. Or promising to make college free. Or eliminating private insurance and replacing it with a government-run health care system. Or giving $250 more each month in Social Security benefits. Or enacting the ‘Green New Deal.’ Or calling for the immediate and abrupt end of fossil fuels. Or vowing to seize guns from people’s homes.

The following June, Centerview advised the coal company Blackhawk Mining on its sale to a European company. A month later, Centerview advised Pacific Gas and Electric (PG&E) on the company’s restructuring as part of a chapter 11 bankruptcy filing worth $25.5 billion. The California utility company had filed for bankruptcy after facing tens of billions of dollars in liability for wildfires started by PG&E equipment failures.

Then, ahead of the Democratic National Convention in August 2020, Emanuel went on CNBC and warned Biden against backing two policies that had been hotly debated in the primaries. “Two things I would say if I was advising [a Biden] administration: One is there’s no Green New Deal, there’s no Medicare for All, probably the single two topics that were discussed the most,” he said.

Expensive Speaking Gigs

Centerview Partners wasn’t the only corner of corporate America willing to embrace Emanuel when he should have been ostracized.

In addition to his salary from Centerview, after leaving office, Emanuel received roughly $310,000 in honoraria for speeches to corporations and trade groups including Morgan Stanley, Goldman Sachs, Duke Energy, American Fuel & Petrochemical Manufacturers, and the National Association of Realtors. The disclosure says that the speaking honoraria were donated to charity, without providing specifics.

Emanuel’s disclosure also lists an honorarium of up to $50,000 from the National Restaurant Association (NRA), one of the main lobbying groups opposed to a national $15 minimum wage. Emanuel was booked at the NRA’s conference shortly after he wrote a Washington Post column arguing that Democrats should allow states to opt out of a $15 minimum wage.

Emanuel didn’t end up speaking at the event: an NRA executive said his absence was due to a “scheduling change.” At the time, Chicago officials were dealing with the fallout from another police shooting, after an officer killed a thirteen-year-old boy.

The NRA did not respond to our request for comment.

Emanuel’s tirades against Medicare for All also seem to have paid off. In February 2020, Emanuel landed a seat on the board of directors at GoHealth, a company that operates a marketplace for Medicare plans administered by private health insurance companies. Last year, GoHealth paid Emanuel roughly $764,000 in cash and stock compensation, according to a company filing.

GoHealth warned investors last year that Medicare for All threatened the company’s profits, writing that:

because our platform provides customers with a venue to shop for insurance policies from a curated panel of the nation’s leading carriers, the expansion of government sponsored coverage through “Medicare for All” or the implantation of a single payer system may materially and adversely impact our business, operating results, financial condition and prospects.

Emanuel’s corporate ties didn’t disqualify him for punditry, and in fact seem to be his only qualifications at all for the Japan ambassadorship: he used his time in the Chicago mayor’s office to privatize the city’s water system and offshore its customer service operations to a Japanese firm, and he formed a business partnership with Japanese officials, we previously reported.

“Moral and Ethical Codes”

In May 2019, Emanuel was granted a contributing editor position at the Atlantic, which ended up being short-lived due to backlash from members of the magazine’s staff, who complained to management that “Mr. Emanuel’s conduct defiles both principles beyond recognition and is the kind of behavior that news organizations of any ideological stripe expose rather than reward.”

During his short stint, Emanuel penned a strong case for the Democratic Party to hold elites accountable for their actions.

In the column, headlined “It’s Time to Hold American Elites Accountable for Their Abuses,” Emanuel wrote that “Democrats need to be the ones demanding that those who fall short, no matter how privileged, be made to answer for their own decisions. Every one of us should have to live by the same moral and ethical codes. The nation’s elite shouldn’t have any special license to take the easy way out.”