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Why Is the GOP Suddenly Defending Bob Menendez?

From Trump on down, they’re speaking out on behalf of a Democratic senator buffeted by accusations of corruption—he’s just one more Biden deep state victim.

Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images
Senator Bob Menendez waves away reporters after addressing a closed Democratic caucus meeting at the U.S. Capitol on September 28, in Washington.

Say what you will about Donald Trump, he has not lost his capacity to surprise. Trump’s declaration of allegiance to New Jersey Senator Bob Menendez caught me unawares. I used to think Trump and the Republican Party he leads were blindly partisan. Now I discover they’re blindly bipartisan when it comes to support for political corruption.

Like an idiot, I worried that Senator Chuck Schumer’s tepid response to the indictment of Menendez would be a gift to Trump. “Bob Menendez has been a dedicated public servant and is always fighting hard for the people of New Jersey,” Schumer said initially. “He has a right to due process and a fair trial.” Oh, please. After other Democrats (most notably Menendez’s New Jersey Senate colleague and onetime character witness, Cory Booker) called on Menendez to resign, Schumer toughened up, but not by much. “Like you, I was just deeply disappointed, disturbed when I read the indictment,” Schumer said. “For senators, there’s a much, much higher standard” than what’s merely legal, Schumer explained, and “Senator Menendez fell way, way below that standard.” Schumer made it sound as though Menendez got caught parking in front of a fire hydrant.

I feared it would be all too easy for Trump to say: “I get indicted for demanding that every ballot be counted, and Democrats call me a crook. Menendez gets caught with envelopes stuffed with cash and gold bars, and Cryin’ Chuck Schumer calls him a ‘dedicated public servant.’”

I also feared that candidates at Wednesday’s Republican debate would be all over Menendez. After all, Republicans piled merrily onto Hunter Biden when he was indicted two weeks ago on gun charges, even though the president’s son holds no public office. Imagine, I figured, what they’ll say about a sitting United States senator, a Democrat, who got himself a Mercedes-Benz convertible by giving up intelligence secrets. (I presume the “non-public information” Menendez handed Egyptians about embassy employees in Cairo, though not classified, included the names of a few spies.) It wasn’t even Menendez’s first indictment for political corruption. His previous trial ended with a hung jury and a letter of admonition from the Senate Ethics Committee. Did I mention that Menendez hired Hunter’s lawyer, Abbe Lowell? Yes, Lowell was Menendez’s lawyer first, defending him in the earlier corruption case, but since when did Republicans care about the details when hurling mud?

My fears were unfounded. It doesn’t matter that Schumer lacks the courage to call for Menendez’s resignation, because Republicans aren’t calling for it either.

At the debate, held just a few hours after Menendez’s New York City arraignment, Menendez’s name did not come up. Not even once! And in a Thursday interview with Henry Rodgers of The Daily Caller, the hard-right news site co-founded by Tucker Carlson, Trump did everything but declare Menendez his comrade in arms. “I think this was an attack,” Trump said about Menendez’s indictment, “that shows again, in a certain different way, because he wasn’t getting along too well with the Democrats and with Biden and he disagrees with Biden on a lot of things.” Trump also said the indictment was evidence of “a two-tier system of justice because Biden has stolen a lot more than he has. I mean he has taken a lot more money than Menendez.”

I’m not sure what Trump means when he says Biden thinks Menendez isn’t a team player. Yes, he’s a bit on the hawkish side, more so than most of his fellow congressional Democrats. But so is Biden. In today’s curious ideological configuration, it’s mostly Republicans agitating to cut off aid to Ukraine and mostly Democrats who want to keep the spigot on. Granted, Republicans want to start a war with Mexico, but Menendez is not on board with that. On immigration he is, if anything, a whisker more dovish than Biden.

You certainly can’t find evidence of disagreement with Biden in Menendez’s voting record. According to FiveThirtyEight, Menendez has voted with Biden 100 percent of the time, one of only nine senators to do so. NBC News turned up the interesting fact that Menendez blocked consideration of a bipartisan bill to toughen the Foreign Agents Registration Act in 2020. But that was before Biden was president, and Menendez may have been acting to protect candidate Biden; a Democratic staff email obtained by NBC News warned that “the R’s will seek to weaponize” the bill against Hunter Biden, either during the 2020 campaign or, if Biden got elected, after.

Trump’s suggestion that Biden has “taken a lot more money than Menendez” is pure fantasy. It builds on an unhinged accusation Trump’s been making lately that Biden “got paid for Rigging the Election,” to quote a September 24 Trump post on Truth Social. Why Biden would need to be bribed into rigging an election in his own favor—and how Biden could achieve that as a private citizen—went unexplained.

Of greater interest in Trump’s Truth Social post, which came two days after Menendez’s indictment, is that this first comment on the matter took the Shame-on-Bob line that I expected:

Senate Democrats should all resign based on Senator Bob Menendez! They all knew what was going on, and the way he lived. Why doesn’t the FBI raid Senate Democrat’s [sic] homes like they illegally raided Mar-a-Lago, where nothing was done wrong based on the Presidential Records Act.

On Sunday on Truth Social, Trump said it was obvious from “the way he lived” that Menendez was a crook, and shame on Menendez’s fellow Democrats for protecting him. On Wednesday in his Detroit speech to nonunion auto workers, Trump withheld criticism of Menendez and said Biden’s unspecified crimes “would’ve made Senator Menendez look like a baby.” By Thursday, Trump was ready to claim Menendez as a fellow martyr—persecuted, like Trump himself, over political differences.

Granted, Trump’s public statements tend toward the erratic, and one can make too much of his perceived shifts. But the direction of these shifts aligned him better with what other Republicans were saying. According to Politico, Senator Kevin Cramer, Republican of North Dakota, urged Menendez not to resign. (In a closed-door session Thursday with Democrats, Menendez said he will not.) Senator Tommy Tuberville, Republican of Alabama, said Democrats wanted Menendez to resign only so that a Democratic New Jersey governor could replace him. Senator Marco Rubio, Republican of Florida, insinuated the same. House Speaker Kevin McCarthy, following a trajectory similar to Trump’s, said on Sunday that Menendez should resign, but two days later backtracked and said that was up to Menendez. Senator Tom Cotton, Republican of Arkansas, articulated the GOP line most clearly. He said that while the charges against him were “serious and troubling,” it was also true that “the Department of Justice has a troubling record of failure and corruption in cases against public figures, from Ted Stevens to Bob McDonnell to Donald Trump to Bob Menendez the last time around.” Note that he attached the word “corruption” to the Justice Department, not to Menendez.

News commentary on congressional Republicans’ muted response to Menendez’s legal troubles has mostly said that Republicans don’t want to criticize Menendez lest they invite criticism of Trump and his four indictments. What’s sauce for the goose, they fear, can be sauce for the gander. But that analysis presumes the Republicans are playing defense, which they aren’t.

The GOP is playing offense. Republicans have declared war on the FBI. They’ve created an entire Select Subcommittee of the House Judiciary Committee on the Weaponization of the Federal Government. That these efforts are hilariously incompetent doesn’t detract from the reality that congressional Republicans have joined Trump in seeking a wholesale delegitimization of the criminal justice system. It’s only a hop, skip, and a jump to openly embracing political corruption, even when the crook is a Democrat. Don’t forget that it was Trump who commuted the prison sentence of Rod Blagojevich, the onetime Democratic governor of Illinois who hung a “For Sale” sign on a Senate vacancy. Trump demonstrated an affinity for criminals well before he entered politics. He is corrupt himself. It makes sense that he’s now positioning himself as an advocate for corruption, Republican and Democratic alike.