Dem 51
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GOP 49
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I Am Not a Crook. Rinse and Repeat

It's like clockwork. Sen. Robert Menendez (D-NJ) was elected to the upper chamber in 2006, and since then, he gets indicted by the Department of Justice in any year ending in "3." It happened in 2013 and boom, yesterday, it happened again. The charges are quite serious—considerably more so than was expected by those who were watching this situation unfold. Menendez and his wife, Nadine, are charged with accepting hundreds of thousands of dollars in cash, gold bars and other benefits, primarily from agents working on behalf of the government of Egypt.

Once the news broke, the Senator, of course, claimed that the charges are baseless, and that he and his wife are being persecuted, and yada, yada, yada. If you cannot tell, we are rolling our eyes as we write this. We will give you three reasons why. First, the other 99 senators, between them, have a grand total of zero federal indictments on their ledgers (though Rick Scott, R-FL, came close due to his company's Medicare fraud, and check back with us in a couple of years on Ron Johnson, R-WI). Menendez now has two. Where there is smoke, there is generally fire, particularly since the feds have something like a 95% conviction rate. Under DoJ policy, they only indict if it's a slam dunk, or nearly so.

That brings us to #2. Some of the allegations in the indictment are very, very specific. For example, the feds say that Nadine met an Egyptian official in a parking lot of a restaurant to receive $15,000 in cash, and then used that for a down payment on a Mercedes. From that point forward, the Egyptians (allegedly) made the payments on the car. This claim would not be in the indictment if the feds did not have a very clear paper trail supporting the assertions.

Third, and finally, when the government raided Menendez' house, they seized $400,000 in cash and another $100,000 in gold bars. A U.S. Senator earns $193,400 per year. An upper-tier salary for a nurse is $140,000. So, let's assume the household income is something like $325,000 per year. Who keeps roughly 1½ years' pre-tax salary stuffed in envelopes and boxes in their bedroom closet? There are two answers to that question. The first is your grandpappy, who grew up during the Depression, and who never had no truck with no banks. The second is crooks, who can't deposit the funds in a bank without raising a bunch of red flags. The Senator, for reference purposes, was born in 1954, roughly 14 years after the Great Depression came to an end.

In short, the Senator and his wife are in deep trouble. It is true that he dodged a bullet in 2013, but that comes with two sizable caveats. The first is that Menendez was not acquitted; the charges were dropped due to a hung jury. The second, and considerably more important, is that between Menendez' indictment (2013) and his trial (2017), the Supreme Court ruled in McDonnell v. United States (2016), a case that involved a different politician—then-governor of Virginia Bob McDonnell (R)—accused of shady behavior. As a result of the ruling, the range of activities that constitute illegal corruption was significantly reduced. In other words, the legal definition of the crime Menendez was charged with in 2013 changed by the time jurors actually began deliberating in 2017; this is what made the hung jury happen. Yesterday's charges were brought with full awareness of the current definition of corruption. So unless there is another change in terms (not likely), Menendez is not going to be handed a "Get Out of Jail Free" card this time.

Democrats across the land have already called on Menendez to resign. Some, perhaps most, of them really are appalled at his (alleged) behavior. On top of that, his seat is up next year, and it would be a safe seat for the blue team, unless the Democratic candidate is an alleged crook. So, the Democratic pooh-bahs would like to get a replacement appointed to the seat ASAP, so that person can hit the ground running and do what it takes to hold the seat.

Menendez, for his part, says he's not stepping down and he's still going to run for reelection. That's what we would expect him to say, at least in the moment. Resigning would look like an admission of guilt, would take away his identity-defining, high-profile job, and would bring an immediate end to the (alleged) gravy train. That said, once he's had some time (and once he's been subjected to enormous pressure), he might think differently.

If Menendez refuses to back down, then the Democrats will have a challenging situation on their hands. Presumably, the party will find, run, and generously fund a primary challenger. New Jersey has no shortage of Democratic representatives who might give it a go: Josh Gottheimer, Andy Kim and Mikie Sherrill among them (with Sherrill reportedly the preferred option of Gov. Phil Murphy, D-NJ).

In addition to a primary challenger, the Democrats could very well try to eject Menendez from the Senate. That would make a pretty strong statement about which party tolerates corruption and which one does not. It is true that no U.S. Senator has been formally ejected from the body since 1862. However, it is also true that the process has been commenced three times since 1982, and all three times (Harrison A. Williams, D-NJ, in 1982; Bob Packwood, R-OR, in 1995; and John Ensign, R-NV, in 2011) the member resigned so as to avoid embarrassment and so as to retain their federal pension. Note that of the three, only Williams had actually been convicted before the Senate pursued expulsion. So, the fact that Menendez has only been charged (and presumably won't be tried for a year or two) is not necessarily going to save his bacon. Or his Taylor ham/pork roll, since it's New Jersey.

As to the Republicans, they have some interesting choices to ponder, too. They could try to make Menendez the face of the Democratic Party, as a way of downplaying the very serious charges faced by Donald Trump. Something along the lines of "It's just politics; everyone does it." However, that also cuts both ways. If the Democrats take strong steps to cut Menendez off at the knees then, as we note, it would actually serve to highlight a rather significant difference between the parties. On top of that, time spent talking about the corrupt behavior of Bob Menendez is time not spent talking about the supposed corrupt behavior of the Biden Crime Family. And finally, if the DoJ is willing to go after Democrats and Republicans, it undermines the claim that the DoJ is a deep-state operation that plays favorites based on political party. On that point, there are already conspiracy theories in right-wing circles that Menendez is innocent, and he just agreed to be indicted to make the DoJ look fair and even-handed. Inside the head of Charlie Kirk must be such a special place to be.

This news is only about 12 hours old, as we write this, so things could develop rapidly in the next few days. Certainly, any politician who is booked for the Sunday news shows better be ready to answer a Menendez question or six. (Z)

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