Yesterday, Robert Menendez sounded defiant, telling constituents in New Jersey that he would stay in the Senate while fighting an indictment for corruption. “This is not how my career is going to end,” he said in a speech after entering a not-guilty plea in court. Afterward, a number of Democrats publicly supported Menendez and demanded that the public allow due process to take place, an effort that got a boost from Menendez organizers:
The New Jersey Democratic State Committee has sent at least six news releases since then with statements from nearly three dozen local and national officials and community leaders. The releases include the hashtag #IStandWithBob and advertised a new @IStandWithBob Twitter account that had tweeted more than 70 times by Thursday evening.
There’s also a slick website, istandwithbob.com, that includes a roundup of positive statements and news coverage as well as a video from Menendez responding to the charges. It also has an “FAQ” with questions like, “What does it mean to be indicted?”
The response begins: “An indictment is the paper that prosecutors write and present in a grand jury where the Senator had no chance to respond or participate.”
The site, which also seeks contributions, was paid for by the Menendez for Senate campaign committee, which has $1.45 million cash on hand, according to its most recent federal campaign filing. Visitors to menendezfornj.com are now redirected to the site.
Senate Democrats seem to be taking more of a wait-and-see attitude. After watching what a scandal did to Republicans in 2006, the caution of getting ahead of the story in either direction is plain. There haven’t been any calls for Menendez to resign, but his colleagues aren’t exactly rushing to his defense either.
The New York Times editorial board has no such patience. An op-ed published today demands Menendez resign now, rather than drag this out any longer:
For high-profile politicians who are indicted by federal prosecutors, there’s something akin to stages of grief. First comes shock, then anger, defiance and, sometimes, after juries convict and judges are ready to impose a sentence, a bit of contrition. …
Mr. Menendez is evidently not in a hurry to get to the stage of contrition, having warned on Wednesday that he’s “not going anywhere.” He would be doing a disservice to New Jersey by clinging to power as a disgraced politician. His colleagues in the Senate should demand that he step aside.
What comes in between those two paragraphs are a pretty good recitation of the indictment, which is still just an indictment. If the government proves the case that the New York Times has outlined, then Menendez is in big trouble indeed, and might want to prepare for a long stay at Club Fed. That’s still a big if, however, especially since all we’ve seen thus far is the arraignment.
In normal criminal cases one would expect to demand a presumption of innocence from the media, but there is a difference when it comes to public figures. The NYT editorial board is correct in applying a different standard when it comes to public trust, and in this case they’re not demanding that Menendez be forced out of office. They’re advising him to leave voluntarily, as New Jersey voters deserve a Senator representing their interests who aren’t under a legal and ethical cloud. That’s not a bad argument, but New Jersey voters had an opportunity to give Menendez the boot in in 2012 when these allegations first came to light, not long before the election. Voters still endorsed Menendez for a second term in the Senate in November of that year, and the New York Times didn’t object at that time.
Besides, while that standard sounds good in theory, in practice it leads to all sorts of perverse incentives. If a sitting member of Congress needs to resign after any indictment, then that leaves the executive branch at least a plenary moral authority to pick off its opposition one at a time. The Department of Justice has already grown politicized under the Obama administration, and it’s not the first presidency to have used the DoJ in such a manner. That may or may not be what’s behind the indictment of Menendez, whose relationship with Salomon Melgen has looked slimy for some time, but it’s certainly a possibility in the future if that becomes the new standard.
The NYT demand is also curious, strictly from a political perspective. Pushing Menendez out would allow Chris Christie to appoint a Republican in his place — possibly even himself, since his presidential campaign seems to be a non-starter. Why would the NYT want to make that kind of a demand? Well, Menendez has opposed Barack Obama’s foreign-policy moves, especially on Cuba and Iran, the two supposed highlights of Obama’s second-term foreign policy. One has to wonder whether the Gray Lady would be as eager to push out Chuck Schumer or Dick Durbin under similar circumstances, or why their ire never rose to this level for Harry Reid’s blatant McCarthyite behavior on the floor of the Senate, for which he has no remorse to this day.
This is an attempt by the NYT editorial board to pose as a non-partisan crusader, but it looks more like political expediency and bandwagoning on behalf of the White House.