Word came down last week that Senator Bob Menendez would soon face federal corruption charges stemming from his relationship with a donor, the wealthy Florida ophthalmologist Salomon Melgen. You can read the initial report for details about the likely indictment, which concerns Menendez’s advocacy for Melgen’s business interests. I don’t know if the looming charges have any merit, but the story of Menendez’s career renders them not implausible. Menendez is known, for example, for receiving huge donations from the Israel lobby and, in turn, dutifully pursues its agenda. He also, as recently recounted in the Intercept by my colleague Eli Clifton and I, advocates for less savory groups that give him money, like a culty Iranian opposition group.
With Menendez, it seems, money talks. And as far as the Melgen allegations go, the investigation has already borne fruit: after its details were disclosed, Menendez in 2013 tardily reimbursed Melgen to the tune of more than $50,000 for flights on the doctor’s private plane.
The latest round of news about potential charges yielded a furious reaction, not least from Menendez himself, who vociferously denied any wrongdoing in a Friday press conference. But other, more surprising players, too, pushed back against the story: a host of right-wing pundits weighed in that the scandal here isn’t the alleged corruption but the potential charges themselves. This clutch of neoconservatives and other hawks suggested that the charges to be brought by the Justice Department were political retribution for Menendez’s consistent work against Barack Obama’s diplomacy with Iran over its nuclear program.
Over the past several years, the New Jersey senator has distinguished himself as the Democrat in Congress most willing to work with hawkish Republicans to push legislation aimed at killing talks with Iran. The moves by Menendez sparked testy exchanges between the senator and the Obama administration, which looks to a possible Iran deal as a legacy foreign-policy achievement. All that seems to be enough to have earned Menendez a few neocons in his corner.
On Friday, the retribution meme began to surface. “Mess with the Iranian nuclear bull, get the DOJ horns?” tweeted Jonathan Schanzer of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, using the initials of the Department of Justice. Many others took a similar conspiratorial line, but none quite as hilariously as Michael Goldfarb. Having the good sense to call this sort of innuendo what it is—a “conspiracy theory“—Goldfarb nonetheless went on to posit: “Menendez prob[ably] is guilty—but they held it over him to keep him in line, and dropped the charges just before the deal… real abuse of power.” Got that? The Obama administration framed up a guilty man for a crime he probably committed.