Sen. Bob Menendez is seen through the viewfinder of a camera as he speaks during a press conference Sept. 25, 2023, in Union City, New Jersey. | Michael M. Santiago/Getty Images
In the days since Sen. Bob Menendez’s stunning indictment on federal bribery charges, a surprising split screen has emerged.
In New Jersey, where there are statehouse elections this November and Democrats could lose their majority in Trenton, party leaders from Gov. Phil Murphy on down have been swift and ruthless in calling for Menendez to resign. He already has a credible 2024 primary opponent in Rep. Andy Kim.
In Washington, it’s a different story. President Joe Biden punted, with White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre telling reporters yesterday that the matter was, in the president’s view, “up to [Menendez] and the Senate leadership to decide.” Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer and No. 2 leader Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.), meanwhile, have already made statements standing by Menendez.
Only three Democratic senators have called for his resignation: Freshmen John Fetterman (Pa.) and Peter Welch (Vt.), plus Sherrod Brown (Ohio), who is in-cycle in a red state. Most everyone else has been quiet since the indictment was unsealed Friday.
But only today will those lawmakers return to Washington to face an inquiring Capitol press corps who will be demanding an answer on the Menendez question.
Many in the Democratic strategist class, who have no senatorial loyalty to Menendez, believe privately that their party is already blowing this by hesitating to cut off a massive political liability that will be used to muddy the waters against Biden and Democratic candidates in House and Senate races next year when the party wants to runs hard against Trump’s multiple criminal indictments.
Giving voice to that sentiment is former New Jersey Sen. Robert Torricelli, who told POLITICO’s Matt Friedman that there’s a “burden” on Schumer to act.
“As Phil Murphy has skillfully navigated New Jersey Democrats to separate themselves from this debacle, the Senate caucus needs to do the same,” Torricelli said. “Otherwise you’re going to get candidates in competitive states like Montana and West Virginia having to answer questions about Menendez and whether he represents a problem in the party.”
In defiant public comments Monday in his hometown of Union City, N.J., Menendez explained that the $480,000 in cash found in his closet were for “emergencies” and was withdrawn from his own personal accounts. He accused prosecutors from the Southern District of New York of hyping the indictment to make it “as salacious as possible.”
He was silent about the gold bars found in his closet, his Google searches about their worth, the DNA evidence and fingerprints from the alleged bribers found on some of the cash, and whether he would still seek reelection next year. He took no questions after reading his statement.
Menendez — who will be arraigned tomorrow with his wife and other co-defendants — said he would be back in Washington this week, where he’ll be closely watched as he interacts with his colleagues on the Senate floor.
No other senator will be watched more closely than Cory Booker, Menendez’s fellow New Jersey Democrat, whose wide-ranging friendships and political alliances have occasionally caused him trouble.
Booker’s long friendship with Shmuley Boteach fell apart after Booker felt the celebrity rabbi exploited him for political gain. Democrats attacked Booker in the 2020 presidential primary for his work in Newark with Betsy DeVos, who by then was Trump’s education secretary. And supporters were puzzled when they learned that Booker wrote a letter to the judge sentencing Elizabeth Holmes, who was convicted for fraud, defending her character and asking for leniency.
But no relationship has pitted Booker’s loyalty against his politics like his friendship with Bob Menendez.
Despite rising to prominence as an enemy of Jersey machine politics, Booker was the face of Team Menendez as soon as the latter was indicted on corruption charges in 2015. When Menendez’s trial ended in a hung jury in 2017, it seemed to vindicate the decision to stick by him.
Menendez might stick around no matter what Booker says this time, but if Booker calls for Menendez’s resignation it will make it safer and easier for every other Democrat who has remained mum to do the same. On the other hand, a supportive statement from Booker will be worth its weight in gold.
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