Menendez case magnifies a Senate powerbroker’s transactional style

The indictment of Sen. Robert Menendez (D-N.J.) has temporarily toppled a powerful Senate Foreign Relations chairman known for keeping a tight grip on matters before the panel and wielding his seat to achieve his aims. 

Menendez is gearing up for the fight of his political life, refusing to resign over corruption charges despite calls from many of his Democratic colleagues, telling reporters Monday that “prosecutors get it wrong sometimes.”

But those who have worked with Menendez say the charges are a reflection of a lawmaker who was well aware of the leverage he held as chairman.

“He was not shy about trying to get what he wanted in any context and was very direct about it; he didn’t really try to obscure or obfuscate what he was looking to get. That transactional relationship really permeated everything,” said one former Democratic staffer who worked opposite Menendez on the House Foreign Affairs Committee.

“He’s a f—ing bully. He does what he wants. and if he doesn’t get what he wants, you’re gonna pay for it. If not now, then sometime in the future,” the source added.

Menendez has linked his emotional advocacy for specific foreign policy issues to his relationships and experiences, pointing to his parents’ flight from Cuba both as a reason for keeping nearly half a million in cash locked in a safe in his house as well as the impetus behind his fight against human rights abuses.

But critics say Menendez’s focus on these issues appeared to go beyond just representing constituent interests, adding that he enjoyed being celebrated for his work and would feel entitled to the benefits of his stature — traits getting a renewed look as the Justice Department brings its second corruption case against him.

Menendez stepped down from the Foreign Relations chairship hours after the Justice Department last week indicted him on three counts, including charges connected to bribery and extortion, keeping with Democratic rules about leaving committee positions when facing felony charges.

It’s a dramatic fall for a leader on U.S. policy issues, one seen as a leading voice in how the U.S. engaged around the world — from Latin America, the Middle East, Asia and Europe — but who also sees himself as a broader champion for human rights.

“Anyone who puts this guy up for sale on foreign policy, they’re not paying attention to his record,” said one person who regularly works with the congressional foreign policy committees. 

The indictment accuses Menendez of using his position as chairman to, in part, support military sales to Egypt in exchange for financial gain. 

But the person pointed out that Egypt’s military enjoys bipartisan support, and foreign military financing for Cairo did not receive pushback from the three other top lawmakers with oversight of foreign affairs. 

The Biden administration earlier this month issued a waiver to deliver $235 million in military assistance to Egypt despite Cairo’s human rights record. 

“I think he’s always been principled,” the source added of his foreign policy positions. “He knows when the United States has leverage. He has a better and a keener sense than most on how to use that leverage. … I think he’s a strategist and a statesman.”

The indictment levels serious allegations over whether Menendez exploited his foreign policy position to benefit a foreign government, specifically Egypt, in exchange for financial kickbacks — in cash, gold bricks, mortgage payments and luxury cars.

More than half of his Democratic colleagues have called for his resignation, and some are raising alarm that there needs to be a closer look at any damage to U.S. foreign policy. 

“It’s a devastating series of allegations and as a committee, we now have a responsibility to understand what Egypt was doing and what Egypt thought it was getting,” said Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.), the chairman of the subcommittee overseeing the Middle East, Tuesday alongside calls for Menendez to resign.

“There are serious implications for U.S. policy towards Egypt.”

Former committee staffers who spoke with The Hill expressed anger toward Menendez over the charges laid out in the indictment, which they said compromised a committee at the forefront of America’s national security and values. 

“I worked on the staff of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee for 12 years. In that time, no Member was ever accused of behavior even approaching that with which Sen. Menendez is criminally charged,” said Jonah Blank, who served as a senior foreign policy adviser under the chairmanship of then-Sen. Joe Biden (D). 

“He should step down immediately, certainly from the committee, and — at least in my view — from the Senate.”

Sen. John Fetterman (D-Pa.) put Menedez’s reputation succinctly: “I’ve read that some believe Sen. Menendez enforces a hard grudge.”

It was a view shared by former Democratic staffers who worked with the New Jersey senator. 

“There’s definitely a history of him holding grudges against certain members of the delegation or House or Senate if they went against his policy, and it makes it difficult to carry out your job, especially in the Trump years,” said a former Democratic staffer who worked in a New Jersey congressional office.

Sources said that was particularly true in matters dealing with Latin American foreign policy. 

Menendez was born in New York to parents who fled the Castro regime, a story central to his personal story and his advocacy of tough policies with the region’s socialist leaders.

“He very much had his agenda and his convictions on certain issues. Particularly like in Latin America, and in that space, he really exerted his influence because a lot of people at the State Department aren’t as active in that space. So for him, what he said kind of went,” the former HFAC staffer said.

Fulton Armstrong, who worked on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee under then-Sen. Biden and later worked on Latin American policy issues at the State Department, said Menendez is one of several members in the foreign policy space who “keeps book” on those they interact with, including those who might later come up for Senate-confirmed positions.

But he said while some State Department officials may have had career considerations in mind while dealing with Menendez, his sway on Latin American policy was mainly in line with the policy course already preferred by the administration.

“He really was not the controlling ogre, but the convenient excuse. They could say, ‘Well, you know what, the chairman wants this.’ And, ‘Oh, you know we have to be careful and we don’t want to cross him,’ etc. I’m not sure that they ever have done anything that wasn’t really what they wanted to do anyway,” Armstrong said.

But the former New Jersey delegation staffer said Menedez would often butt heads with other Latinos serving in Congress who advocated for approaching the region differently.

“I saw that less when I was working with New Jersey members and more when working for a Latino member in the [Congressional Hispanic Caucus], and the way [Menendez] would handle it with people coming out on positions on him or going further than him on Latin America or Cuba policy, and people would get cut out of events or cut out of messaging if they didn’t stay where he was,” the source said.

“Obviously, he had personal opinions and family ties that colored his opinions on Cuba and how foreign policy played out on that.” 

Armstrong said even as a senator, if not a chairman, Menendez wields significant power, particularly with a State Department largely in line with his approach.

“A single member can still do a lot of damage. And he does have the institutional memory and the depth and the staff and the records of where skeletons are in various policy areas, that he’s going to still be a formidable player on Latin America policy,” he said.

“I don’t think that overnight, anybody at the State Department is going to be singing Hallelujah. Even the people that he has blackballed in the past.”

Menendez has not yet addressed whether he’ll run for reelection in 2024, but he has doubled down on remaining in the Senate.

“It is not lost on me how quickly some are rushing to judge a Latino and push him out of his seat. I am not going anywhere,” he said in a statement the day he was indicted.

He is viewed as the primary roadblock to the Biden administration’s efforts to supply the Turkish government with F-16 fighter jets and upgrades to its existing fleet, exercising a hold on the military sales over his concerns about Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s authoritarian hold over the state. 

“One of our most important problems regarding the F-16s were the activities of U.S. Sen. Bob Menendez against our country,” Erdoğan told reporters Tuesday. 

Turkey also views with anger Menendez’s staunch support of Armenia. The senator was viewed as a major force in getting the Senate to recognize Turkish atrocities against Armenians in the early 20th century as genocide. Menendez choked back tears on the floor of the Senate on the day the genocide was recognized in 2019. 

He is also a fierce advocate supporting Yerevan in its conflict with Azerbaijan, and he has sparred with the State Department over their careful diplomacy in trying to negotiate between the two Caucus countries — which face competing U.S. national security interests involving Russia, Iran, Turkey and Israel. 

On the day of his indictment, Menendez introduced bipartisan legislation aimed at imposing costs on Azerbaijan over their aggression against Armenians in the contested territory of Nagorno-Karabakh.

At a hearing examining U.S. policy toward the Caucuses in November, Menendez scolded top State Department officials for failing to label Azerbaijan as an aggressor against Armenia.

“It’s totally, totally unacceptable and you can tell the secretary I’ll be looking for ways to express my dissatisfaction.”

Tags Foreign Relations Menendez indictment Robert Menendez