Yesterday, the Justice Department hit Democratic New Jersey Senator Bob Menendez with fourteen counts of corruption, including 8 bribery charges that alone could carry more than a century in prison. The indictment was based on Menendez’s relationship with Salomon Melgen, a Florida ophthalmologist and major donor. In exchange for a litany of gifts, including Caribbean resort stays, campaign cash and flights, according to the indictment, Menendez used his influence to benefit Melgen’s interests, extending to his businesses and even helping to get visas for “several of Melgen’s girlfriends.”
Menendez held a defiant press conference on Wednesday evening (before officially pleading not guilty today), declaring his innocence and, as he did when news of the imminent charges broke last month, telling reporters, “I am not going anywhere.” That may be true, in terms of Menendez’s Senate seat, but the Democratic hawk already gave up his powerful post as ranking member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee (a position he hopes to retake when cleared of the charges).
Some of the media coverage of the charges suggested that Menendez’s departure from his leadership position would harm Democrats—but that’s not quite as clear as it seems. Indeed, in lamenting the Democrats’ loss, National Journal noted Menendez was able “to work with Republicans and has earned their respect through his occasional battles with the White House over foreign policy.” That hardly sounds like a leader of the caucus, but rather like a senator who has worked hand in hand with the most obstructionist critics of the Obama administration’s foreign policy.
The constant efforts, in cahoots with Republicans, to constrain the Obama administration’s diplomacy with Iran, for instance, have divided Democrats bitterly. In January of 2014, Menendez, along with rapacious anti-Iran Senator Mark Kirk (Ill.), introduced a new sanctions bill backed by the powerful anti-diplomacy American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC). Critics said the bill would kill the interim agreement struck by Iran and world powers—the framework that just today bore fruit as negotiations toward a comprehensive pact advanced—leading to widespread opposition among the Democratic Senate leadership. When liberal grassroots groups rallied enough Democrats to sustain a promised presidential veto, the bill failed to come to a vote.