WASHINGTON – Bob Menendez doesn’t belong in the U.S. Senate.
It’s not just the New Jersey Democrat’s 14-count indictment Wednesday on corruption charges, though that’s plenty damning. As bad is the appalling way in which he responded: with a political rally to kick off a campaign against the Justice Department in which Menendez plays the persecuted minority.
Menendez called his event Wednesday night in Newark a “press conference,” but it was no such thing. He took no questions, instead reading a combative statement claiming the Justice Department – a Democratic administration’s Justice Department – was doing the bidding of “those who have a political motive to silence me.”
Menendez, at the Hilton at Newark Penn Station, entered to 35 seconds of applause, whistles and cheers, and his brief speech was interrupted many more times by supporters in the room. At one point he smiled and said, “This is a press conference, so I would appreciate it if you would just withhold.” The crowd responded with more applause.
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Then he did the whole thing again in Spanish, saying he would be vindicated and his accusers exposed. !Al final del dia sere vindicado y estas personas seran expuestas!
“Si se puede!” somebody shouted during the applause that followed.
“Viva Menendez!” somebody else cried.
“I’m not going anywhere!” Menendez vowed. !No voy a irme a ninguna parte!
“Viva Bob!” a supporter shouted as others cheered.
If that effort to inject Menendez’s ethnicity into his legal troubles was too subtle, a website run by Menendez for Senate called “I Stand with Bob” emailed an article titled “Immigration advocates defend ‘the senior senator for Latinos.’”
But Menendez is not being prosecuted because he’s Latino or because DOJ is endorsing the “smears” of his political enemies. He’s in trouble because he’s been sleazy.
This is not to say Menendez will be proved guilty. In political corruption cases, quid pro quo is notoriously difficult to demonstrate, and since the botched prosecution of the late Sen. Ted Stevens, prosecutors have been reluctant to try.
But what Menendez himself has admitted to – taking and failing to report gifts from a friend who had much to gain from the friendship – is enough to draw the conclusion that he is unfit to serve. It doesn’t matter if it’s illegal. It’s shameful.
It wasn’t until investigators began to probe Menendez’s relationship with Salomon Melgen, a Florida eye doctor, that the senator wrote a personal check for $58,000 to pay for two private-jet flights to Melgen’s villa in the Dominican Republic. “This was sloppy,” his chief of staff said at the time. “I’m chalking it up to an oversight.” And how will Menendez chalk up the other 17 private flights Melgen provided for Menendez that investigators found?
Menendez is accused of receiving from Melgen trips to Florida, Paris and the Dominican Republic, first-class airfare, meals, golf outings and upward of $750,000 in campaign contributions and legal-defense funds.
In turn, prosecutors say, Menendez intervened to help Melgen in matters involving Medicare charges and a port-security contract, and he helped three of Melgen’s foreign-born girlfriends obtain U.S. visas.
Much of this is either a matter of public record (Menendez held a Foreign Relations Committee hearing at which he pressured State Department officials to take action that would have helped Melgen) or easy to document, and Menendez, at least so far, hasn’t seriously disputed that he took gifts from Melgen or did things to help him. He says it was just a matter of camaraderie.
“Prosecutors at the Justice Department don’t know the difference between friendship and corruption,” Menendez said Wednesday with a pious point of the index finger.
But Menendez is the one who is confused. Friendship is about brotherly love; Melgen was Menendez’s patron.
Whether a jury, months or years from now, agrees with Menendez and his lawyer’s allegation of DOJ “misconduct,” is beside the point. Anthony Weiner wasn’t in serious legal trouble, but he resigned because he had disgraced himself. What Menendez did was worse: exposing not his genitals but his public office to the appearance that it could be bought.
Menendez’s home-state Star-Ledger editorialized that the unreported gifts Menendez has acknowledged are “at least as bad” as those that led Rep. Rob Andrews, another New Jersey Democrat, to resign after reportedly using campaign funds to pay for trips. The newspaper, which endorsed Menendez in 2012, called for his resignation, arguing that, whatever happens in court, there’s no dispute that “it was sleazy to accept these secret gifts in the first place.”
Resign merely because of sleaze? Yes, he can – and he should.
Follow Dana Milbank on Twitter @Milbank.