Comment: Democrats have nothing to gain by backing Menendez

Unlike the loss of Al Franken, encouraging the New Jersey senator to go doesn’t cost the Democrats much.

By Francis Wilkinson / Bloomberg Opinion

Al Franken was an above-average senator from Minnesota who was driven from office in 2018 by his Democratic colleagues after several women accused him of touching them inappropriately or making them feel physically uncomfortable. Democrats opposing Donald Trump — then a admitted groper, later found liable for rape — did not want to have to defend the unseemly behavior of one of their own. Collectively, they applied sufficient pressure on Franken that he felt compelled to quit the Senate.

Bob Menendez is a below-average senator from New Jersey who is facing his second round of charges of public corruption. Democrats opposing Trump — whose corrupt practices in business and politics are fodder for Democratic campaigns — should not have to defend Menendez’s conduct. So his Democratic colleagues need to make him understand that the Senate would be better off without him.

Menendez was indicted Friday in a 39-page howitzer from Damian Williams, the U.S. attorney for the Southern District of New York. If 10 percent of the allegations in the indictment are true, Menendez is both a crook and a dunce. Law enforcement officials found “over $480,000 in cash — much of it stuffed into envelopes and hidden in clothing, closets and a safe” — in Menendez’s home, and some $70,000 more in a safe-deposit box belonging to the senator’s wife. Oh, and some gold bars and a Mercedes, too.

Some of the envelopes were marked by the fingerprints of one of three business executives who prosecutors say bribed Menendez in return for his efforts to assist them, which also included secretly assisting the government of Egypt. (Menendez is chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.)

Since any allegations of political crime take place in the context of Trump’s multiple criminal indictments, comments by Williams that might have been routine in the pre-Trump era seemed instead pointed and meaningful. In a news conference Friday, Williams thanked FBI agents, Justice Department officials and his own team of career prosecutors for their help in building the case against Menendez. Since Trump attacks those pillars of law enforcement on a near-daily basis, and tries to smear them as political partisans, the indictment of a Democratic senator reads as a reproach to the indicted Republican former president as well.

Menendez denied the allegations and complained that prosecutors were criminalizing his robust constituent service. He will have the opportunity to defend himself at trial. His last corruption trial, which also included allegations of bribery, ended in 2017 in a hung jury. Who knows? Maybe Menendez will get lucky again. Meantime, Democrats should make every effort to drive him from the party. (If Menendez leaves office early, New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy, a Democrat, would name a replacement.)

Contrary to some fantasies, there is no grand council of poobahs that makes decisions for the Democratic Party and instructs an army of operatives to execute. There are only elected officials, donors, consultants, hangers-on and a loose network of people with varying degrees of commitment to the party’s success.

Reaching a party consensus about Franken’s fate wasn’t easy. Franken was popular, an excellent communicator and a potential presidential nominee. Even today, there is a grudging, though not terribly active, debate among some Democrats about whether Franken got a raw deal when his colleagues, led by Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand of New York, pushed for his prompt resignation. But those who felt the party couldn’t tolerate Franken’s alleged transgressions were more vociferous and committed than those who thought they could. The Franken supporters caved, and Franken followed suit.

None of that internal combustion is really necessary in the case of Menendez. A product of notoriously corrupt Hudson County, Menendez has never enjoyed the popularity, or possessed the rhetorical skills, that Franken brought to the party. Franken was replaced by another Democrat, Tina Smith, who votes with her Democratic colleagues and Democratic president. There is every reason to believe that New Jersey can provide a Democratic replacement for Menendez who will do likewise without taxing the resources of prosecutors in the tri-state area. There is no reason to tolerate a tainted senator from New Jersey.

Francis Wilkinson is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering U.S. politics and policy. Previously, he was an editor for the Week, a writer for Rolling Stone, a communications consultant and a political media strategist.

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