As federal corruption charges against Senator Robert Menendez marinated over the weekend, one interesting development is that, as Lauren Fox reports, his allies in the pro-Israel movement are getting more aggressive about insinuating that the charges are a politically motivated gambit. One problem with this conspiracy theory is that the people raising questions — the Israel Project's Josh Block says it "has the appearance of being politically motivated," and Christians United for Israel's David Brog deems it "suspicious" — don't have any evidence.
But a second problem is that the theory makes no sense. The governor of New Jersey is a Republican. If Menendez goes down, he'll be replaced until a special election by someone who is equally hostile to Obama's approach to the Iranian nuclear deal but also hostile to his entire domestic agenda.
Robert Menendez is a conventional Democrat from a state with a Republican governor
The idea of a politically motivated prosecution to drive a senator from office is tantalizing to conspiracy theorists. And it kind of makes sense. If the Obama Justice Department were able to slap together some trumped-up charged against Colorado Senator Cory Gardner and force him to resign, the state's Democratic governor, John Hickenlooper, would appoint his replacement. Colorado is enough of a purple state that incumbency advantage is a big deal, and even temporarily replacing a GOP senator with a Democrat could have long-term consequences.
The Menendez situation isn't like that at all. Menendez is a generally conventional liberal Democrat from a blue state.
In the 113th Senate, his voting record most closely resembled Tom Harkin and Dick Durbin. New Jersey is a very reliably Democratic state that last voted for a Republican senator in 1972. But the state has a Republican governor, Chris Christie, who would fill any vacancy that the Menendez prosecution might create with a Republican. Any Republican senator would be far more hostile to Obama's agenda than Menendez, so there is no conceivable political motivation for going after him.
The indictment is pushing Menendez to the right on Israel
If anything, the politics of the indictment cut in the opposite direction. Menendez has long been a bit out of step with the Obama administration on two foreign policy issues — Israel and Cuba.
Especially on Israel, he is hardly the only Democrat cross-pressured by partisan loyalty to Obama and longstanding ties to pro-Israel groups who wants to kill the deal. The indictment has made Obama's path to winning the congressional fight harder, not easier. On the one hand, it's reduced Menendez's loyalty to the administration. On the other hand, it's made Menendez more dependent on support from pro-Israel groups than he previously was.
On March 31, Alexander Burns reported that Menendez "has found perhaps his deepest well of support in the expansive pro-Israel community, including prominent Jewish Democrats concerned about the direction of White House negotiations with Iran." Indeed, Burns reports that more than a quarter of the money to Menendez's legal defense fund has come from pro-Israel donors. And while no one has yet quite bothered to mount a defense of Menendez's conduct on the merits, it's pro-Israel groups who've been loudest in raising the specter of political persecution.
Burns quotes Morton Klein, president of the far-right Zionist Organization of America, saying "all I hear, repeatedly, is that he is being punished for his rational and strong stance on trying to get a strong deal for American and Israel, on Iran."
Sometimes a corruption indictment is just a corruption indictment
The simple truth is that questions have swirled around Menendez's integrity for years. In their 2006 endorsement of his Senate reelection bid, the New York Times flagged "a history of ethical lapses that have been all too common for Democratic officials in New Jersey." Elements of the Menendez investigation have been underway for years.
The precise timing of the indictment is an interesting coincidence, but if anything it's an inconvenient one for the White House. It's made it harder than ever for Obama to persuade Menendez to break with pro-Israel groups, and it's raised the specter of him being replaced by a Republican. In the highly unlikely event that the White House could order up public integrity prosecutions of incumbent senators, there would be absolutely no reason to cook this one up.