Sen. Bob Menendez of New Jersey was federally indicted in New York for taking thousands of dollars in bribes on Sept. 22. Menendez is accused of extortion, specifically of using his position on the powerful United States Senate Committee on Foreign Relations to obtain favors of value.
A particularly damaging accusation is that Menendez promised to facilitate foreign military sales in exchange for his wife receiving a cushy job with little to no work. In addition, he unlawfully obtained privileged information about consulate staff at the U.S. Embassy in Egypt that was then forwarded to Egyptian officials. Beyond foreign interference, Menendez is accused of intervening in prosecutions by the New Jersey District Attorney’s Office and asking for leniency for his associates.
Menendez has claimed innocence against the accusations and has refused to step down from his position as Senator, although he has vacated his position on the U.S. Senate Committee on Foreign Relations. Despite Menendez’s unwillingness to step down, it is imperative that he resign.
This is not Menendez’s first time being accused of corruption. In 2015, he was indicted on unrelated bribery charges. The case against him ultimately ended in a mistrial, but nevertheless, his previous accusations, in conjunction with the current evidence, suggest to many Americans that their politicians are corrupt.
Menendez is absolutely innocent until proven guilty, and he has the right to have his day in court and defend himself. However, at a time when public trust in Congress is at its lowest in the past seven decades, with only 16% of Americans reporting that they trust the federal government sometimes or most of the time, it is crucial that individuals have faith in their representatives.
The trial for Menendez’s accusations will be lengthy and will not occur immediately. Although he is not convicted, the notion of the people of New Jersey continuing to be represented by an individual with such serious, credible accusations is unconscionable and will continue to reduce the faith the people have in their representatives. Put simply, it is a bad look and will confirm to many Americans that Congress is corrupt.
Menendez should take stock of who his supporters are and their motivations. His Republican supporters include Sens. Tom Cotton and Marco Rubio. They argue that overzealous Department of Justice prosecutions have unfairly convicted politicians, like former Virginia Gov. Robert F. McDonnell, whose conviction the Supreme Court later overturned. What Republicans do not understand, and what Menendez should, is that innocence under law cannot make up for a loss of the public’s trust.
If Menendez were in another field, I would be inclined to allow him to continue his job until he is found guilty by a jury of his peers. But, as a senator, his job is uniquely founded upon earning the trust of his constituents that he will represent their beliefs and advocate for improvements to their lives. Based on the latest accusations, this trust is fundamentally shattered, or at least called into question. For him to continue to serve in the face of the indictment sends the message that he is unwilling to make the sacrifices needed to restore the people of New Jersey's faith in their senator.
Sen. Cory Booker, the other Democratic senator from New Jersey, put it best in his statement calling on Menendez to resign.
“Stepping down is not an admission of guilt but an acknowledgment that holding public office often demands tremendous sacrifice,” he wrote.
Booker’s statement is especially notable, because he has been a close ally of Menendez and even testified as a character witness in his last bribery trial. In addition to Booker, over half of all Democratic Senators have called on him to resign, including Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer.
It is important to keep in mind that although Menendez is a Democrat in Congress, the issue of corruption is not limited to Democrats and certainly not limited to only Congress. At the same time as Menendez’s indictment, House Republicans began mounting their aimless impeachment inquiry into President Joe Biden, hoping to impeach him on charges of non-existent corruption. To some Republicans, Menendez’s accusations reinforce a larger trend of Democrats being corrupt.
By staying in office, Menendez furthers the image of “corrupt” Democrats as they go into a competitive election year, but more importantly, he strikes another blow to the already fragile trust the public has in the government.
Samhi Boppana is a junior from Dublin, Ohio, majoring in biology and political science. She is the Opinions Editor for The News-Letter.