Senate Leaders Need to Break With Menendez Now

Hopefully, Democratic leaders in the Senate will do the right thing, and this column will be obsolete by the time you read it. I would have written it earlier, but I thought that at any moment, the dam would break and Robert Menendez, the recently indicted senator from New Jersey accused of spectacular acts of treachery and corruption, would be pushed out. Yet here we are, four days after the Department of Justice gave us all a look at Menendez’s cash-stuffed jacket and one-kilo gold bars, and a united front of condemnation has yet to materialize. As I write this, more than a dozen Democratic senators have called on him to step down. Every other Democratic senator — especially the Senate majority leader, Chuck Schumer — should join them.

It’s true, of course, that an indictment is not a conviction. (Menendez knows this as well as anyone, having been charged with corruption once before but spared by a hung jury.) While he is entitled to another fair trial, he is not entitled to a seat in the United States Senate. As chairman, until recently, of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, he is accused not just of accepting lavish bribes but also, more seriously, of passing sensitive information to an Egyptian businessman with ties to Egypt’s government. This is wrongdoing on a whole other level from what he was previously accused of.

At a defiant news conference on Monday, Menendez insisted he’s staying in the Senate and offered a preposterous excuse for the hundreds of thousands of dollars that F.B.I. agents found at his house. He said he kept it for emergencies, “because of the history of my family facing confiscation in Cuba.” Apparently, Menendez, who was born in New York, wants us to believe that, because of intergenerational trauma, he feels the need to hedge against Communist revolution in America. (Ironically, his family now, indeed, faces government confiscation.) He also claimed to be the victim of racist persecution by those who “simply cannot accept that a first-generation Latino American from humble beginnings could rise to be a U.S. senator” — a deployment of identity politics so audaciously cynical, it belongs in a caustic TV farce, some deranged mash-up of “Veep” and “The Sopranos.”

His refusal to resign is a problem for Democrats both substantively and politically. At the most basic level, it’s hard to see how, given what Menendez has been accused of, he can be trusted to do his job. His continued tenure in the Senate is an embarrassment to the institution and to the Democratic Party, an embarrassment that will only grow more acute as his prosecution proceeds. Republicans, of course, understand that his presence in the Senate works to their advantage, which is why the right-wing senator Tom Cotton of Arkansas declared that Menendez should stay put.

And while Menendez’s indictment demonstrates the absurdity of Donald Trump’s ranting that the Justice Department is rigged against Republicans, it also makes it harder for Democrats to keep the spotlight on Trump’s baroque corruption. Finally, if Menendez somehow fends off a primary challenger next year, he could offer Republicans the chance to pick up New Jersey’s ordinarily safely Democratic Senate seat.

“It’s astonishing, given that kind of evidence, to say you’re not going anywhere,” Senator John Fetterman, Democrat of Pennsylvania, said on Monday evening, a few hours after Menendez’s news conference.

Fetterman was the first Democratic senator to call for Menendez’s resignation. He’s since been joined by several others, including Sherrod Brown of Ohio, Tammy Baldwin of Wisconsin and, most significantly, Menendez’s fellow New Jersey senator, Cory Booker. Outside the Senate, influential Democrats — including New Jersey’s governor, Phil Murphy, and the former House speaker Nancy Pelosi — have also said Menendez should step down.

But the Senate’s top Democratic leaders are so far standing behind him, with Schumer calling him a “dedicated public servant” who “is always fighting hard for the people of New Jersey.” Perhaps Schumer and others are holding their fire so they can try to ease Menendez out behind the scenes, but given Menendez’s news conference, he seems unlikely to go anywhere without a shove. And until Senate leaders denounce him — and, if necessary, make plans to expel him — Menendez’s shame will taint them as well.

When I spoke to Fetterman, he expressed bemused astonishment that some senators have seemed more exercised about his challenge to the Senate’s sartorial traditions than about the allegations of influence peddling by Menendez. “There were people running into the burning building to save the virtue of the Senate over a dress code,” said Fetterman, but when it comes to a stash of gold bars and “wads of cash all over the house,” they’re silent. “It’s confusing,” he said.

Then again, perhaps the reason Fetterman was so quick to speak about Menendez is that he hasn’t yet been acculturated into the Senate’s clubby and insular folkways. Talking to Democrats about why senators haven’t yet lined up against Menendez, I got the sense that turning on him was seen as a grave step rather than a screamingly obvious one.

Whereas for Fetterman, it was an easy call. “It’s just so clear,” he said. “Black and white.” One of his favorite movies, he said, is “Goodfellas,” and he recalled the scene in which Henry, undressing before a closet packed with clothes, pulls stacks of bills from his pants. “It’s literally just like that!” Fetterman said of Menendez. He’s right. So how could there be any doubt that Menendez has to go?

The Senate, said Fetterman, “is a strange place sometimes.”

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