Politics & Policy

The Democrats Suddenly Need Menendez

Robert Menendez outside a federal court in Newark, N.J., in 2015. (Reuters photo: Eduardo Munoz)
Two years ago, Obama and other Democrats chortled when their party’s principal critic of the Iran deal was hobbled by a corruption indictment. Now they’re praying for his acquittal.

It seems like such a long time ago. Back in the early months of 2015, Democratic leaders could barely contain their glee at news that one of their own was in legal trouble. Indeed, as far as President Obama was concerned, the shadow that then fell over the career of New Jersey senator Robert Menendez couldn’t have come at a better time. But three years later, Democrats are worried that Menendez’s woes could cost them a crucial Senate seat, giving Republicans the extra vote they need to repeal and replace Obamacare.

Menendez was the chair of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee when Obama and then-secretary of state John Kerry embarked on a quest to appease Iran that would culminate in the nuclear deal reached in the fall of 2014. Throughout the administration’s talks with Tehran, he used the committee to push for tougher sanctions on the Islamic Republic and hold the White House accountable for its puzzling desire to violate Obama’s 2012 campaign promise that any agreement would eliminate the Iranian nuclear program. He looked to be a formidable obstacle to any effort to confirm the accord Kerry had negotiated.

Then, two things happened.

First came the resounding Republican victory in the 2014 midterms, which handed the GOP control of the Senate. The White House wasn’t happy about that, but the silver lining was that Republican Bob Corker would replace Menendez as chair of the Foreign Relations Committee. Though Republicans were united in opposition to the Iran deal, Corker was by no means as tough on the issue as Menendez. Indeed, Corker would later author a bill that gave Obama the ability to get the deal ratified. And that tactical error ultimately enabled the White House to claim congressional approval for the deal even without the two-thirds vote of Congress that the Constitution requires in order to ratify a treaty.

As ranking member of the committee, however, Menendez could still be a thorn in the administration’s side when it came to the president’s most significant foreign-policy achievement. In January 2015, the senator and the president engaged in a bitter public confrontation at a Senate Democratic retreat. During a session with the president, Menendez stood up and spoke in favor of a bipartisan Iran-sanctions bill. Obama not only vowed to veto the bill but then pointedly implied that Menendez’s position was motivated by fundraising rather than principle. That thinly veiled reference to the support the senator got from pro-Israel groups prompted an angry response from Menendez.

Yet in the weeks that followed, news began to leak that Menendez was about to be indicted on federal corruption charges. Menendez was forced to step down as ranking member of the Foreign Relations Committee (where he was replaced by the less truculent Ben Cardin) and await his trial. He was effectively marginalized by the indictment, removing a major obstacle to Obama’s getting his way on the nuclear deal.

Now, three years later, Menendez’s trial is beginning, and Democrats are no longer smirking at the senator’s troubles. If he is convicted and then either resigns or is expelled from the Senate before January, his replacement will be picked by New Jersey governor Chris Christie. Christie would almost certainly nominate a Republican to the seat, and that interim senator could provide the GOP with the one extra vote they need in order to repeal and replace Obamacare.

Of course, before Republicans begin planning for an increased Senate majority, they must await the outcome of what promises to be a hard-fought trial.

That prospect has Democrats vowing to stall or in some other way fend off any Republican effort to oust Menendez until after Christie leaves office and is in all likelihood replaced by a Democratic governor. It also means Menendez has gone from being the bête noire of liberal Democrats to an object of great sympathy among them.

Of course, before Republicans begin planning for an increased Senate majority, they must await the outcome of what promises to be a hard-fought trial.

Menendez is accused of using his office to help Dr. Salomon Melgen get visas for his girlfriends, of assisting Melgen in a dispute over Medicare billing, and of intervening on behalf of a company owned by the doctor that had port-security contracts. Prosecutors allege that Melgen — who was convicted earlier this year of bilking taxpayers out of $105 million in one of the largest Medicare scams ever — bought Menendez’s good will with $750,000 in various campaign contributions, as well as private-jet flights and stays in luxury hotels. Menendez says these were just gifts from a friend, not bribes.

The entire affair stinks to high heaven, but in the absence of proof that there was a tangible deal between the two in which contributions and gifts were exchanged for senatorial action, it’s far from clear that a conviction can either be obtained or sustained in the appellate courts. The Supreme Court’s recent overturning of former Virginia governor Bob McDonnell’s corruption conviction — which rested on a similar assumption that gifts from a contributor were inherently corrupt and therefore illegal — bodes ill for the government’s case even if jurors are moved by the evidence to convict Menendez.

The trouble with the case is that it seems to rest on the assumption that members of Congress have a fiduciary duty to see that taxpayer money is spent wisely instead of being used to benefit their campaign donors: If it were always illegal for members of the House and Senate to do favors of one kind or another for their contributors, all 535 of them would be in jail. Even by the standards of New Jersey’s debased politics, what Menendez did doesn’t pass the smell test. But it’s entirely possible that the biggest waste of money here will turn out to be the millions being spent to convict Menendez on charges that may not survive the appellate process.

The ultimate irony here is that most of the Democrats who hoped to see Menendez taken down when news of his legal troubles first broke are now desperately rooting for his survival. If he is able to escape conviction, Menendez will face the voters in November 2018. But for now the fate of his old antagonist Barack Obama’s signature domestic achievement rests on whether he can avoid conviction and expulsion.


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