U.S. Sen. Robert Menendez (D-NJ) speaks at a news conference on Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C. on Dec. 10, 2014.
Photo by Larry Downing/Reuters

Menendez indictment shakes up Capitol Hill

Just hours after being indicted on federal corruption charges, Sen. Bob Menendez (D-N.J.) hosted a press conference to defend himself. The New Jersey Democrat took no questions from assembled reporters, but he struck a defiant note: “I am not going anywhere.”
What’s less clear is whether the senator will have much of a choice. The editorial page of New Jersey’s largest paper, the Star-Ledger, has already urged Menendez to resign.
The state needs a respected senator who is focused on his job, not a tarnished defendant who spends his days fending off credible charges of corruption and raising money for his legal defense. […]
[Menendez] has done good service to this state over the past 40 years. But that is now tarnished forever. His decision to stay and fight only compounds the damage.
Part of the senator’s challenge is the fragility of his defense. Menendez is accused of receiving lavish gifts from Florida optometrist Salomon Melgen, a wealthy donor and longtime ally, in exchange for political favors. Most of the details are not in dispute: the senator received nearly $1 million in gifts from Melgen, and Menendez took a wide variety of steps to use his office to help Melgen personally and professionally.
But, the senator claims, the two are unrelated – because Menendez and Melgen have been friends for many years, the gifts and favors should be seen as unrelated. In other words, the defense is that the arrangements were largely coincidental.
The Justice Department’s investigators didn’t find this persuasive. The senator hopes to have better luck in the courts.
But in the meantime, the very rare indictment of a sitting senator quickly reverberated on Capitol Hill.
Menendez felt it was necessary for him to step down as the ranking member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, and the practical effects of this shift are real: The Hill reports that the Democrat has championed legislation that may derail a possible nuclear deal with Iran, and with Menendez demoting himself, his bill is now in greater jeopardy.
Soon after, one of Menendez’s allies, Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.), announced that she will return all campaign contributions she’s received from Menendez’s PAC. If other Senate Dems do the same, it would signal a considerable loss of support, which would likely push Menendez closer to the exits.
Oddly enough, Menendez apparently won’t face too much heat from Senate Republicans, who continue to suggest some kind of White House conspiracy is unfolding. Sen. Mark Kirk (R-Ill.) said yesterday, “Bob Menendez has been an excellent partner for me on the Iran stuff, and I’m worried now by leaking stuff [from] Justice it’s politically motivated to silence Bob for his work on Iran, which he should be praised for.”
I’d note for the record that the Justice Department is not “leaking stuff.” Rather, it’s indicted a senator. There is no “leak.”