On Thursday, the six members – three Republicans, three Democrats – of the Senate Select Committee on Ethics issued a stinging smackdown of New Jersey Democratic Sen. Bob Menendez over his relationship with a wealthy eye doctor named Salomon Melgen.
Here’s the key bit from the four-page(!) public letter the committee released (bolding is mine):
“The Committee has found that over a six-year period you knowingly and repeatedly accepted gifts of significant value from Dr. Melgen without obtaining required Committee approval, and that you failed to publicly disclose certain gifts as required by Senate rule and federal law….The Committee has determined that this conduct violated Senate Rules, federal law, and applicable standards of conduct.”
To understand what a big deal this is, you need to understand the Senate. The Senate is the most exclusive club in the world – and they act like it. There’s only 100 of them, and despite the increasing partisanship in the chamber, there remains a sort of sacred trust even among members of opposite parties – especially when it comes to their own personal politics.
If you ever sat in the Senate galleries, perched high above the chamber, that clubbiness would be immediately apparent to you. The Senate is the most back-slapping, arm-patting, one-arm hugging place you can imagine.
A letter like this one from the Senate Ethics Committee will land with a thud in the world’s greatest deliberative body.
But it’s actually worse than that. Why? Because not only did all three Democrats on the Ethics Committee sign the letter “severely admonish[ing]” Menendez, but four of the six also serve on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee where Menendez is the ranking Democratic member. That quartet: Sens. Chris Coons, D-Delaware; Jeanne Shaheen, D-New Hampshire; Johnny Isakson, R-Georgia; and Jim Risch, R-Idaho.
Senators who serve together on committees tend to be even closer – and more chummy – with one another. Think of Richard Burr, the North Carolina Republican, and Mark Warner, the Virginia Democrat on the Senate Intelligence Committee: That duo has put out a generally united front on the investigation into Russian meddling in the 2016 election even in the face of President Donald Trump’s anger about the whole thing.
For two Democrats on Menendez’s committee to sign onto a scathing letter that makes clear he broke not only Senate rules but also federal laws in his relationship with Melgen is a very big deal, symbolically speaking.
But, really, only symbolically speaking. Because being “severely admonished” by the Senate doesn’t have any actual impact on Menendez’s life. He keeps his committee assignments. He keeps his seniority. His life in the Senate today is the same as it was yesterday – except potentially more awkward when he runs into the six senators who signed this letter.
And Menendez has already escaped prosecution for his relationship with Melgen. After a nearly three-month trial ended in a hung jury last fall, the Justice Department decided to drop the case rather than retry Menendez earlier this year.
“As those who followed the 11-week trial know, many of the findings in the letter were not only contradicted by the presiding judge … but the proceedings clearly demonstrated that there was no violation of any law,” Menendez lawyer Marc Elias said in a statement Thursday. “This was further underscored when the Department of Justice dropped its baseless charges in January.”
There also appears to be little long-term electoral damage to Menendez from the allegations. While Menendez’s approval numbers dipped during the trial, they have rebounded considerably; a Monmouth University poll conducted earlier this month showed Menendez with a 21-point edge over Republican Bob Hugin. Menendez ended March with $5.3 million in the bank for the fall campaign; Hugin had $6.7 million in the bank thanks to a $7.5 million personal loan.
That lack of competitiveness can, of course, change. After all, a letter like the one sent Thursday by the Ethics committee will be fodder for lots and lots of campaign ads. But, New Jersey is a Democratic state in what looks to be a very good Democratic year – and Republicans have lots of other, better opportunities. (There are 10 Democratic senators running for re-election in states Trump won in 2016.)
Still. For six senators to write a letter like this one about a colleague they will see every day in the halls of the Capitol is a BIG deal. And speaks to just how unhappy those senators were about the way Menendez conducted himself with Melgen.