Within hours of Sen. Robert Menendez’s indictment Friday on bribery charges, prominent members of his party were already calling on the New Jersey Democrat to resign. “These are serious charges that implicate national security and the integrity of our criminal justice system,” Gov. Phil Murphy said in a statement. “The alleged facts are so serious that they compromise the ability of Senator Menendez to effectively represent the people of our state.” Democratic politicians and party officials from across the state concurred. On Saturday, third-term Rep. Andy Kim announced he would challenge Menendez in next year’s primary.
The speed with which Democrats have moved to jettison Menendez presumably has a lot to do with the jaw-dropping levels of corruption alleged by the Justice Department. The indictment details a stunning conspiracy in which, according to prosecutors, Menendez abused his position as the top-ranking Democrat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee to secretly aid the government of Egypt and improperly intervene in multiple criminal cases in exchange for hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of bribes—including cash, gold bars, a luxury car, and a “low-or-no-show job” for the senator’s wife at a halal meat certification company.
It’s a massive scandal in its own right. But at a time when Democrats are desperately trying to convince voters that Donald Trump is too corrupt and too big of a threat to democracy to be president again, it’s also a political nightmare. “How can we ask Americans to vote against an indicted Trump, but for an indicted Democratic Senator, especially with evidence this damning?” wrote former New Jersey Democratic Rep. Tom Malinowski, whose own stint in Congress was marred by an ethics scandal. “We are at a critical time in our country’s history, and we face significant challenges and specific threats…we cannot be distracted,” added New Jersey Rep. Donald Norcross, the brother of one of the state’s most influential power brokers.
By Friday evening, there was a palpable sense of moral triumphalism among anti-Trump commentators. “In calling for Menendez to step down NJ Dems and others showing there really is a difference between the two parties,” tweeted the Washington Post’s Jennifer Rubin. “Now Senate Ds need to follow.”
Here’s the thing, though: Even if some of the brazen details in the Menendez indictment would have been impossible to imagine before Friday, the broad outlines of the corruption accusations were entirely predictable. Menendez has faced remarkably similar allegations before, but Senate Democrats chose to put him back in charge of the Foreign Relations committee as soon as it was politically tenable to do so. As my colleague Dan Friedman explains:
In 2015, he was charged with using his office to do favors for a Florida eye doctor, Salomon Melgen, who lavished Menendez with luxury items and free travel. Menendez, who claimed he and Melgen were simply friends who exchanged gifts, avoided conviction after a hung jury caused a mistrial in 2017. Melgen was convicted of Medicare fraud in 2017, but President Donald Trump commuted his 17-year prison sentence.
In a 2018 letter “severely” admonishing Menendez after the trial, the Senate Ethics Committee criticized him for accepting and failing to disclose “numerous things of value from Dr. Melgen, including, but not limited to, travel on private and commercial flights, a luxury hotel stay in Paris, and lodging on 19 occasions at a Dominican Republic villa.” While receiving those gifts, the committee found, Menendez used his office “to advance Dr. Melgen’s personal and business interests” by intervening with a government agency in a Medicare billing dispute, helping Melgen protect a contract in the Domican Republic, and helping “foreign nationals obtain visas to visit Dr. Melgen in the United States, including, in one case, appealing directly to a U.S. ambassador to seek reconsideration of a visa denial.”
In 2015, as now, Menendez stepped down from his powerful Foreign Relations Committee leadership role after being indicted. But in general, Democrats stuck by him. As the New Jersey Globe noted yesterday, Murphy, who was running for governor during the 2017 trial, “remained a Menendez ally.” Murphy, Norcross, and Sen. Cory Booker all gave heavily to Menendez’s legal defense fund.
After the mistrial, New Jersey’s infamous Democratic machines closed ranks around Menendez. Murphy and Booker gave full-throated endorsements at his 2018 reelection kick-off (“This is the man that we need in this fight,” Booker declared), and he faced no credible primary challengers. Hillary Clinton appeared at a Menendez fundraiser. And, most significantly, Senate Democrats agreed to restore his committee post. That decision, as Friedman writes, “gave Menendez the power that the Justice Department now alleges he used corruptly.”
In that sense, the Democratic Party’s collective decision Friday to hold Menendez accountable doesn’t seem quite so swift. One could argue that it came eight years too late.