Column: Sen. Menendez is getting the push out of public service he deserves. Now do Trump

A man looking down, at a lectern, with reporters watching
Sen. Robert Menendez (D-N.J.) responds to corruption charges against him at a news conference on Sept. 25, 2023, in Union City, N.J.
(Andres Kudacki / Associated Press)
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To all the ways that Americans have traditionally distinguished between the nation’s two major parties, mostly on policy grounds such as taxes and social issues, add another: ethics. Republicans condone ethical transgressions and even alleged criminality, Democrats not so much.

This week provided only the latest examples.

Opinion Columnist

Jackie Calmes

Jackie Calmes brings a critical eye to the national political scene. She has decades of experience covering the White House and Congress.

First and unsurprisingly, we got more news of former president and transgressor in chief Donald Trump. Adding to his mountain of alleged and actual wrongdoings — inciting insurrection, purloining state secrets, running a fraudulent charity and sexually assaulting women, to name some — a New York judge ruled that Mr. Art of the Deal had for years inflated his assets’ value by billions of dollars to defraud banks, insurers and other businesses.

The finding would have been a huge scandal for any other politician. For Teflon Don, the runaway front-runner for Republicans’ 2024 presidential nomination, it was simply another Tuesday. From his party, crickets. Reporters have tired of asking Republicans for their (non)reaction to his sins, and next to none of the party pooh-bahs volunteer any chastisement.


As it happened, however, this week reporters were busy asking for — and getting — Democrats’ reaction to the other big crime news in politics, about the alleged malefactor and repeat indictee in their party: Sen. Robert Menendez of New Jersey.

Democratic Sen. Robert Menendez of New Jersey says the nearly $500,00 in cash found in his home was from personal savings, not from bribes.

Sept. 25, 2023

Initially many Democrats, especially in the Senate, were silent after Friday’s jaw-dropping federal indictment of the three-term senator, complete with photos of stashed cash, gold bars and a luxury convertible. It alleged that Menendez and his wife took all that and more as bribes for helping Egypt and three New Jersey businessmen, in part by providing them with inside information that Menendez held thanks to his privileged position as chair of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.

Within days, however, New Jersey’s Democratic governor, most of its House Democrats, numerous local officials and about 60% of Menendez’s Democratic Senate colleagues had called for him to resign, including the other New Jersey senator, Cory Booker. (Missing as of Wednesday: California’s Sens. Dianne Feinstein, herself facing calls to resign because of the impairments of age, and Alex Padilla, a member with Menendez of Congress’ Hispanic caucus.) Under Senate Democrats’ rules, Menendez immediately forfeited the committee chairmanship he’d allegedly milked for personal gain.

On Wednesday, the senator pleaded not guilty, which underscores this fact: Menendez is indeed presumed innocent unless convicted. He escaped conviction after an earlier federal bribery indictment in 2015, when a jury deadlocked in 2017 and prosecutors declined to retry him.

More than half of Senate Democrats have called for Robert Menendez to resign. Sen. Charles E. Schumer says Menendez will address Democratic colleagues Thursday.

Sept. 27, 2023

Yet a criminal conviction, a finding of guilt beyond a reasonable doubt, should not be the standard for deciding whether a U.S. senator — let alone a current or former president — is worthy of holding office. A lesser standard is essential: Does the person deserve the public’s trust?

Menendez does not. His first indictment established his ethical blindness, if not his criminality. This second offers more damning evidence that again condemns Menendez on ethical grounds, if not legal ones.


And that’s what Democrats suggested in their pleas that he resign. Booker, who previously was a character witness for Menendez, said the new allegations “are of such a nature that the faith and trust of New Jerseyans as well as those he must work with in order to be effective have been shaken to the core.”

The condemnation of indicted Sen. Robert Menendez by fellow Democrats stands in contrast to the see-no-evil response of Republicans to the serial indictments of former President Trump.

Sept. 26, 2023

As well they should be shaken. Sen. Chris Murphy, a Democrat from Connecticut who has justifiably criticized Egypt’s human rights record, went so far as to tell Punchbowl News that the Senate should investigate “whether Egypt was running an illicit influence campaign on the Foreign Relations Committee.”

Leaving it to Menendez to resign or not may seem weak. In fact, the House and Senate rarely move to expel a member, and for good reason: The voters back home should choose, except in the most heinous circumstances. (New Jersey voters chose Menendez again in 2018, despite the earlier bribery allegations and trial.) That said, the circumstances embroiling Menendez now argue for giving him a strong verbal push.

And for that, you’d think Republicans would have beaten Democrats to the punch, particularly considering that the senator is up for reelection next year — in a blue state, to be sure — and Democrats’ narrow majority leaves Senate control up for grabs.

But no — we’re talking about the Trumpian party of ethical blinders. The gang so vested in defending the indefensible Trump that it shies from castigating others for fear of being accused of hypocrisy. The party so hostile to federal prosecutors, again out of loyalty to Trump, that Republicans would rather beat up the Justice Department than flay an indicted Democrat. Most have remained silent.

House Speaker Kevin McCarthy did quickly call for Menendez to go, then seemed to backtrack after it was noted that he continues to stand by New York Rep. George Santos, the legally troubled serial liar in his caucus. Last year, House Republicans countenanced another controversial colleague, Rep. Madison Cawthorn of North Carolina, until he claimed some of them enjoyed orgies and cocaine; he subsequently lost reelection. And at the height of the #MeToo movement, Republicans regularly ignored allegations of sexual misconduct against party colleagues from Trump down. Democrats, on the other hand, turned on their own, forcing out some, including (unjustifiably in my view) former Minnesota Sen. Al Franken.


Democrats aren’t saints, as Menendez illustrates. And Republicans are not all sinners. But by Republicans’ tolerance of the sinner Trump, they’re redefining their party platform relative to Democrats’. Theirs is the one that condones the unethical and even the criminal.