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The GOP refusal to condemn Menendez speaks volumes
They like gold bars too.
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As a general rule of politics, it should be easy to condemn the corruption of someone in the opposition party.
Democrats, for instance, have with glee attacked cartoonishly mendacious New York Rep. George Santos, who last week was hit with a superseding indictment for using donor credit cards to make unauthorized charges. Last month, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee highlighted Santos’s original indictment in an ad arguing that vulnerable House Republicans from New York protected Santos and therefore are implicated in his corruption and lies.
Obviously, the ad is opportunistic. But that’s not a bad thing. Partisans are supposed to treat the other party’s corruption as an opportunity. Corruption should be an electoral liability.
It’s bad for democracy and for constituents when candidates steal donor credit card information and flagrantly lie about their backgrounds. When the other party does that, you attack. That makes it harder for corrupt candidates to win elections and gives parties a strong incentive to police themselves so they don’t promote corrupt candidates who will lose. People love to decry partisanship, but this is one area where partisan incentives and good government align. Democrats should dump on George Santos; it’s good politics and also righteous. Everyone wins.
Ideally, Republicans would in turn target corrupt Democratic politicians. One such is New Jersey Sen. Bob Menendez, who was hit with a superseding indictment of his own last week charging him with conspiracy to act as a foreign agent. But rather than condemning him, Republicans have mostly punted, or actively defended him.
The GOP’s partisan interest in capitalizing on Democratic failures is less powerful than the GOP’s partisan interest in fighting for corruption. Republicans have become a party that believes in blanket impunity for the powerful. It’s a weird bipartisan authoritarianism, and another sign that Republicans have abandoned their commitment to democracy and to their constituents.
Menendez has been awful for a long time
Menendez’s corruption isn’t exactly news. He’s been struggling with a range of ugly accusations going back years.
After being appointed to the Senate in 2006, Menendez was first indicted for corruption in 2015. The Justice Department accused him of accepting bribes from, and advancing the business interests of, Salomon Melgen, a Florida ophthalmologist. Menendez allegedly accepted almost $1 million in gifts and contributions in return for using his position to try to settle a $8.9 million billing dispute in Melgen’s favor. He also helped get visas for Melgen’s girlfriends. Menendez allegedly tried to influence a cabinet secretary, an ambassador, and other senators to aid Melgen.
Menendez’s trial ended in a deadlocked jury in 2017, and the Justice Department did not seek a retrial. Menendez scraped by in his primary against a weak opponent. He then won a comfortable victory in the 2018 general as part of that cycle’s anti-Trump blue wave.
It’s election season again, which means, apparently, that it’s time for another round of Menendez indictments.
This time the charges are even more serious. Menendez and his wife allegedly took hundreds of thousands in bribes from Egypt, some of it in the form of actual gold bars. In return, Menendez used his position as the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee to advance Egyptian interests. Menendez also is accused of taking other bribes, including money from businessman Jose Uribe who asked Menendez to help him beat New Jersey charges for fraud. When police raided Menendez’s home, they found gold bars, and $480,000 in cash hidden in closets, clothing pockets, and a safe.
The charges were originally announced in September. A superseding indictment released last week makes the implications of Menendez’s corruption clearer. Menendez is charged with providing “sensitive US government information” to the Egyptian government and taking other steps that secretly aided the government of Egypt.
Between January 2018 (less than a year after his hung jury trial for corruption) and June 2022, the indictment alleges that Menendez acted as a foreign agent for Egypt, using his position on the Foreign Relations Committee to push foreign military sales and assistance. Menendez allegedly gave information about Cairo embassy staff to Wael Hana, a New Jersey businessman, who passed the information to Egypt. Menendez also allegedly worked to lift holds on Egyptian weapon sales.
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Menendez could face two years in prison for failing to register as a foreign agent. The government is also demanding the return of the proceeds of his alleged bribes.
Menendez has denied all the allegations. But he stepped down as head of the Foreign Relations Committee to avoid the appearance of impropriety. And that makes sense because, per the indictment, there appears to be an awful lot of impropriety.
Republicans: “I am Menendez!”
Democrats struggled to condemn Menendez during his first trial; the party waffled and mostly backed him halfheartedly. This time around, though, it’s been very different. Democratic New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy quickly called for Menendez to resign, as have many other prominent Democrats in the state government. So did more than half of Menendez’s Democratic colleagues in the Senate, including the other New Jersey senator, Cory Booker.
Sen. John Fetterman of Pennsylvania has said that the chamber should expel Mendendez. That doesn’t look likely in the near future. But the Democratic rejection of Menendez has opened the way for strong primary challengers. Democratic Rep. Andy Kim has declared his candidacy; he raised $1 million in his first seven days of campaigning.
It’s not clear whether Menendez will run for reelection, but if he does, he’s going to have a hard time surviving the primary.
Some Democrats have offered halfhearted defenses of Menendez. Majority Leader Chuck Schumer said Menendez fell “way, way below” the standard of conduct for a senator, but didn’t openly call for his resignation. Joe Manchin more forcefully refused to ask Menendez to step down, citing his desire for the legal process to play out.
Condemning corruption in one’s own party is always more difficult than condemning it across the aisle. Democratic politicians have been friends with Menendez. He has influence in the party and could theoretically target people who denounce him now. If he ends up as the candidate for Senate in 2024, loss of party support could throw the election to a Republican.
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Still, given the incentives, Democrats have managed to come out quite forcefully against Menendez. They’ve organized to deny him a Senate seat and get him out of the party. That’s what you’d hope they’d do.
Republicans should find it easier to denounce Menendez. But instead, they’ve waffled or outright defended him.
Arkansas Sen. Tom Cotton said that “the Department of Justice has a troubling record of failure and corruption in cases against public figures” and suggested that Menendez was being unfairly railroaded like the sainted former President Trump.
Republican Sens. Marco Rubio (Florida), JD Vance (Ohio), and Ted Cruz (Texas) made similar arguments. Even Santos himself chipped in, whining that “the media has to stop acting like everybody is guilty before they’re even judged by a jury.” (Pro tip: you don’t need a jury trial to expel someone from Congress.)
Why are Republicans caping for Menendez, anyway?
As Cotton made clear, this is partly about Trump. The entire GOP is afraid to say that Trump’s four indictments and 91 felony charges are disqualifying, lest the base turn upon them in anger and relegate them to the howling outer darkness with Liz Cheney. If they don’t want to look like hypocrites, they have to take a consistent “we don’t care about indictments” stance.
This has been the conventional explanation for the GOP’s anti-anti-Menendez line. But the thing is, when have Republicans ever really cared about looking like hypocrites? They’re perfectly happy to claim to be the party of law and order while cheering for insurrectionists who assaulted police officers. They said Hillary Clinton should be jailed for failing to follow proper email security protocols as secretary of state, but now they’re defending Donald Trump, who allegedly stole classified documents and kept them in his bathroom. Why should they balk at defending Trump and attacking Menendez?
Maybe the issue for the GOP is that they just sincerely, truly don’t think Menendez did anything wrong. Bribery and corruption are a betrayal of constituents. But these days, it’s not really clear that the GOP thinks representatives have any duty to those who elected them, or to democracy.
For instance, the leading candidates in the shambolic GOP House speaker race again refused last week to acknowledge that President Biden won the 2020 election. GOP controlled states like North Carolina have used gerrymanders to effectively institute one party authoritarian rule. The knee-jerk defense of Menendez seems consistent with the GOP’s anti-democratic consensus.
If those in power rule by right and without accountability, corruption isn’t a moral failing. It’s a perk. Republicans look at Menendez shoving gold bars down the front of his pants, and they don’t say, “Hey, that’s a grotesque abuse of power!” They say, “Cool. I’d like gold bars too.”
That’s it for today
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