Contrary to Mark Twain, history really doesn’t rhyme, but it does sometimes repeat itself, as the career of Sen. Robert Menendez (D-N.J.) illustrates. Menendez’s indictment on corruption charges involving doing favors for an Egyptian company tied to U.S. aid to that country made headlines last month, not least because the story involved federal agents finding nearly $500,000 in cash and $100,000 in gold bars hidden in his home, along with a Mercedes Benz convertible that was allegedly also given to him as a bribe.
This is bad news for Menendez since it forced him to resign from his post as chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. But as The New York Times reported, this is very good news for President Joe Biden and liberal Democrats.
They are thrilled at having Menendez ousted from his important committee chairmanship since the senator, a foreign-policy hawk, has been a thorn in his party’s side when it came to issues like support for Israel and opposition to appeasement of Iran, Cuba and Venezuela. Unlike Menendez, new committee chair Sen. Ben Cardin (D-Md.) will cause Biden and the foreign-policy establishment no such trouble.
If the story sounds familiar, it should.
In early 2015, as it prepared to shove an unpopular and dangerous nuclear deal with Iran down the throats of Congress and the American people, the Obama administration got a similar lucky break. Menendez, a longtime friend of the pro-Israel community, was the most able foe of appeasement of Iran in the U.S. Senate. But just as the debate over the nuclear pact was about to start, Menendez, who had been chair of the Foreign Relations Committee and in 2015 was its ranking minority member, was forced to step down.
In April 2015, he was indicted on federal corruption charges involving, among other things, pressuring the U.S. State Department to help out a political donor and crony in a business deal involving the Dominican Republic and visas for this man’s girlfriends in exchange for personal favors like private flights and vacations.
Menendez would ultimately win this legal battle when a federal jury was deadlocked on the charges in his 2017 trial. The Justice Department ultimately chose not to try him again due in part to Supreme Court rulings that narrowed the criteria under which a politician could be charged with bribery. While the case smelled to high heaven of dirty dealing, it wasn’t enough for the Department of Justice merely to allege that his efforts were corrupt. Since there was no direct proof of an illegal deal—as opposed to just doing favors for a constituent, which politicians do all the time—Menendez was able to claim that he was vindicated and easily won re-election to a third Senate term in 2018.
But as far as the Iran debate was concerned, his triumph came too late.
In Obama’s first term, the senator had pushed hard for the administration to accept the tough sanctions on the Islamist regime that would bring it to the negotiating table. And he was poised to lead the opposition to the pact that would ultimately lead to the current situation in which, according to a Department of Defense report issued last week, Tehran has enough nuclear material to be only 12 days away from being able to assemble a bomb.
The timing was perfect for Obama since he and the senator had a vitriolic personal confrontation at a private Democratic Senate retreat in January 2015. The exchange, which was subsequently leaked to the press, involved Obama accusing Menendez of opposing his Iran appeasement policy and pushing for more sanctions against the regime simply because of “pressure from donors.” That was a not-so-subtle shot at the New Jersey senator’s ties to AIPAC and the pro-Israel community. Rather than meekly take the insult, Menendez reportedly stood up and challenged Obama on the issue in what was diplomatically termed “a forceful exchange between two strong personalities.”
But he was effectively silenced by the legal cloud hanging over him. Obama, with the assistance of the corporate media “echo chamber” his aides had boasted of creating, easily slipped the Iran deal through a back-door provision months later that enabled it to be approved by less than half of the Senate despite most Americans and members of Congress opposing it.
At the time, some conspiratorially minded observers wondered about the timing of the indictment by Obama’s Justice Department. Though, to be fair, the distinct odor of corruption around Menendez had attracted interest from law enforcement long before the Iran debate heated up.
Given that the trail of dishonest dealing—not to mention the cash and gold hidden in his home—in the current case is far more blatant, it’s hard to imagine Menendez beating this rap. His legal victory in 2017 (not to mention his old-school brass-knuckled version of machine politics that remains alive and well in the Garden State) intimidated most potential challengers in 2018. But he is unlikely to run for re-election in 2024 and isn’t likely to win this time even if he tries.
Are there lessons to be learned from his story?
Some of Israel’s opponents are, no doubt, chortling about how Menendez’s conduct undermines the cause of Israel within the Democratic Party as well as buttresses the myths about the “Israel lobby” buying support for the Jewish state.
Menendez’s fall does add to the worries about the growing strength of the Democrats’ intersectional anti-Israel leftist base, as well as the dwindling ranks of pro-Israel stalwarts and opponents of tyrannical leftist and Islamist regimes in the party. But while Menendez is alleged to have taken money to help an Egyptian company, the claims of those like Obama and others that members of Congress need to be bribed to support Israel remain unfounded.
Outside of the far-left wing of the Democratic Party, the cause of Israel remains popular. And it is simply good politics for members on either side of the aisle to back it, no matter how much or little they might get in political donations from many other lobbies—both those representing industries and political causes—have far more resources at their command.
Still, the details about the criminal dealings that Menendez was allegedly drawn into do illustrate the dangers that arise when politicians—and their relations who benefit from their last names and associations with people in power—conduct influence-peddling operations abroad.
What ought to be most troubling to observers is not just Menendez’s lack of integrity, but the way he appears to have been willing to profit from foreign powers who have a vested interest in foreign policy. Though its human-rights record is awful, Egypt is an important U.S. ally, and the preservation of the military government there led by President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi is vital to the preservation of the peace between that country and Israel and the stability of the Middle East in general.
For Menendez to muddy the waters and call into question U.S. aid to Egypt (which Cardin is now putting on hold) that helps it stay afloat and prevents the Muslim Brotherhood—the only viable alternative to the military in that country—from seizing power was a terrible blunder that might also lead to his imprisonment.
Unlike ordinary Americans, Washington insiders think the operations of the lobbying industry are merely the grease that makes the machinery of government work. It’s bad enough when politicians peddle influence at home to domestic political and economic forces, but at least in those cases, the public generally can assume what they’re being given and what those seeking their help get in return.
When foreign governments and entities are involved, the question of the quid pro quo becomes murkier. That’s why the activities of Bill and Hillary Clinton via their Clinton Family Foundation and Clinton Global Initiative were so worrisome. In the years leading up to Hillary’s 2016 presidential run, it raised more than $2 billion, though only a small percentage of it was spent on charity. Instead, it operated as a legal slush fund to finance their lifestyle, travel and expenses. The fact that foreign donors were clearly investing in buying influence with someone whom they thought (as most did before Donald Trump’s upset victory in the 2016 election) was going to be president was the problem.
The same could be said of what appears to be at least $21 million (that we know about) that foreign companies, including those controlled by the Chinese Communist Party and Ukrainian oligarchs, gave Hunter Biden in the period that his father was president and prior to Joe Biden’s 2020 presidential campaign.
What appears to be the sorry end of Robert Menendez’s political career says nothing about the rightness of his stances in support of Israel, and against the Obama-Biden appeasement of Iran and other terrible regimes. The consequences of this corruption and the questions that arise about what such foreign donors and clients are getting in exchange for their generosity to the likes of the Clintons, the Bidens and the Menendezes go far beyond any concerns about ethics.
Jonathan S. Tobin is editor-in-chief of JNS (Jewish News Syndicate). Follow him: @jonathans_tobin.