While corruption scandals on Capitol Hill, alas, have a rich and varied history, it’s been a long while since Americans were confronted with a story like Sen. Bob Menendez’s. The New Jersey Democrat was first indicted eight years ago, but the case ended in a mistrial after jurors were unable to reach a unanimous verdict, and the charges were ultimately dropped.
The new indictment, unveiled on Friday, is more ... colorful. NBC News summarized some of the jaw-dropping revelations:
Gold bars worth more than $100,000. A new Mercedes-Benz convertible in the garage. Wads of cash stuffed in the pockets of a jacket with “Bob Menendez” embroidered on the breast. ... [T]he details of what federal agents said they found in June 2022 when they raided the Menendez home in New Jersey, and in their subsequent investigation of the couples’ email and phone accounts, could have been stripped from an episode of “The Sopranos.”
That, of course, is the senator’s first and most obvious problem. According to federal prosecutors, Menendez isn’t just guilty of corruption, the New Jersey Democrat engaged in cartoonish corruption.
The second and less obvious problem is that Menendez hasn’t come up with much of a defense. To be sure, the longtime federal lawmaker and his wife have denied allegations of wrongdoing, and like all criminal defendants, they enjoy the presumption of innocence.
But if the senator has a simple explanation as to why he had nearly half a million dollars in cash stuffed inside envelopes and stashed inside the pockets of clothing, Menendez has kept these reasons to himself.
Instead, he’s suggested that the criminal charges are somehow the result of racism. “Those behind this campaign simply cannot accept that a first-generation Latino American from humble beginnings could rise to be a U.S. Senator and serve with honor and distinction,” Menendez said in a Friday afternoon written statement. Hours later, the senator issued a second statement, adding, “It is not lost on me how quickly some are rushing to judge a Latino and push him out of his seat.”
In other words, we’re supposed to believe that Menendez is mired in scandal, not because of the gold bars the FBI found at his house, but because he’s a Cuban-American politician.
All of which leads to his third problem: With the senator struggling to explain the serious allegations, quite a few prominent members of his party are eager to show him the door. In fact, with Menendez’s current term set to expire next year, the incumbent now has something he never expected to confront: a primary rival. NBC News also reported:
Rep. Andy Kim, D-N.J., has announced that he plans to run against Sen. Bob Menendez, D-N.J., who is facing mounting pressure from Democrats to resign after he was charged with bribery in a recent indictment filed in Manhattan federal court. After he called for Menendez to step down on Friday, Kim said Saturday that he plans on challenging Menendez for his Senate seat.
“Not something I expected to do, but NJ deserves better,” Kim wrote online. “We cannot jeopardize the Senate or compromise our integrity.”
The announcement came against a backdrop of Democratic calls for Menendez’s resignation, including calls from New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy, Sen. John Fetterman of Pennsylvania, and a growing number of U.S. House members.
But as the senator weighs his future options and prepares a legal defense, I’m also struck by what Democrats aren’t saying in the wake of Menendez’s indictment.
Democrats haven’t argued that Menendez is a martyr, who’s been indicted for his followers. They haven’t condemned the case as “election interference.” They haven’t pushed to defund federal prosecutors. They haven’t suggested George Soros was involved. They haven’t pointed to the case as evidence of a “weaponized” Justice Department.
Democrats also haven’t demanded an investigation into the investigation. They haven’t said Menendez is a good guy, so the evidence is irrelevant. They haven’t characterized the indictment as some kind of inexplicable “distraction” related to Hunter Biden.
Or put another way, the parties appear to have dramatically different standards when it comes to dealing with allies facing ethics scandals and criminal charges.