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It’s not just Trump - the Menendez case shows the reality of the GOP

The GOP has been strangely hesitant to call for Menendez’s resignation

Noah Berlatsky
Wednesday 27 September 2023 19:38 BST
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Senator Bob Menendez of New Jersey and his wife, Nadine Arslanian Menendez, were indicted on federal bribery charges last Friday. Since then, numerous Democratic leaders have called for Menendez’s resignation. Those urging Menendez to step down include New Jersey governor Phil Murphy, the other New Jersey Senator Cory Booker, and (as of this writing) some 27 other Democratic Senators—more than half the caucus.

The contrast with the Republican response to Donald Trump’s indictments is stark. But there’s also a marked contrast with Republican responses to the indictment of Menendez himself. Usually it’s easy to highlight and condemn the other party’s corruption. But the GOP has been strangely hesitant to call for Menendez’s resignation. That’s because the GOP is increasingly defined by its belief that those in power should have blanket impunity, and by its opposition to holding elected officials accountable.

This is not the first bribery charge Mendendez has faced. In 2015, he was indicted for allegedly receiving bribes from donor Salomon Melgen, a Florida ophthalmologist. The prosecution ended in a mistrial in 2017. While there was grassroots opposition to Menendez, most Democratic leaders continued to support him, and he won his reelection bid in 2018.

This time is different in large part because the bribery charges are both clearer and more spectacular. Menendez is accused of using his political influence to help several businesses in exchange for bribes. The indictment also says that Menendez, who is chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, was given bribes in return for promoting the interests of the Egyptian government. When agents searched Menendez’s home, they found half a million dollars in cash and literal bars of gold.

The accusation that Menendez is taking bribes from foreign nations is extremely serious, and a potential threat to national security. John Fetterman of Pennsylvania, the first Senator to call for Menendez’s resignation, said, “it’s not a close call and if you were looking for the most incriminating kinds of evidence, nobody could even come up with gold bars in a mattress.”

Fetterman and an increasing roll of Democrats may see it as a close call. But Republicans have been less forthright. Not a single Republican has called for Menendez’s resignation, and several of them have defended him. Florida Senator Marco Rubio, for example, said that Menendez shouldn’t resign because “in America guilt is decided by a jury, not politicians in fear of their party losing a Senate seat.” Senator Tom Cotton of Alabama defended Menendez on the grounds that “the Department of Justice has a troubling record of failure and corruption in cases around public figures.” Cotton singled out former President Donald Trump as someone who DOJ had unfairly prosecuted.

Cotton’s comparison of Menendez to Donald Trump suggests one obvious reason that the GOP is leery of calling for Menendez’s resignation. Trump has, of course, now been indicted four times, and faces 91 criminal charges. Those charges are related to hush money payments to cover up an affair, to improper handling of classified documents; election interference in Georgia, to federal efforts to overthrow the 2024 election.

Republicans have responded to these indictments not by condemning Trump, but by claiming without evidence that the Department of Justice and the FBI are corrupt and are targeting Trump as a political ploy. If Republicans said Trump’s DOJ indictments were meaningless, while Menendez’s DOJ indictments were serious, they would look inconsistent and hypocritical.

The thing is, Republicans aren’t generally that worried about being inconsistent or hypocritical. GOP politicians have cheerfully taken credit for infrastructure projects they voted against, for example. Republicans have gone all in on attacking President Joe Biden’s son for influence peddling, though he’s never been a government official, while ignoring massive red flags around Trump son-in-law Jared Kushner’s dealings with the Saudis while he was a White House official.

The GOP embraces double standards when it’s to their partisan advantage. So why not in the case of Menendez? Instead of arguing that Menendez is persecuted like Trump, Cotton and Rubio could say something like, “Look at the disgusting things Democrats do! And yet they dare impugn our glorious leader. The shame! The shame!”

Instead, though, the Republicans seem determined to ignore Menendez, or to actually defend him. Corruption is an assertion of impunity and hierarchy; when you use your office to enrich yourself, you’re saying that you are more important than those who voted for you, and that you are entitled to wealth and power without accountability. That’s a message the GOP finds congenial.

The Trump GOP increasingly embraces the idea that the powerful should be allowed to do whatever they want, and that questioning them is disqualifying presumption. When Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh was accused of sexual assault, the GOP rallied behind him, though they could easily have found and confirmed another candidate instead. Trump saw the presidency as his by right and framed all voters who cast ballots against him in 2020 as illegitimate. The GOP is increasingly pushing no-fault divorce, in an effort to trap women in marriages and restore male prerogatives.

The GOP loves traditional hierarchies and impunity for traditional hierarchs. And nothing says impunity quite like a politician chuckling as he stuffs a bunch of gold bars in a sack. The GOP doesn’t want to hold Menendez accountable because their party is the party of refusing to hold the powerful accountable. When a Democrat betrays his constituents, the Republicans can barely restrain themselves from making him an honorary member of the GOP.

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