The trial of democratic Senator Bob Menendez began yesterday. Menendez is charged with 14 counts of criminal corruption, including bribery, conspiracy, and making false statements. The charges stem from accusations that Menendez used his office as senator to benefit his personal friend, Salomon Melgen. Melgen is an eye doctor in Florida who, in 2012, donated more than $700,000 to a political action committee (PAC), some $582,000 of which went toward Menendez’ campaign for re-election. As if that weren’t enough, Melgen offered Senator Menendez an array of perks including trips on his private jet, three nights at a five-star Paris hotel, a round of golf at a private club in West Palm Beach and access to an exclusive Dominican resort. Menendez did not report these ‘perks’ on his financial disclosure forms. In exchange, it is said, Menendez used the power of his office to negotiate for a lucrative port security contract that would have benefitted Melgen. Oh yes, and Menendez also helped acquire visas for several of Melgen’s girlfriends.
Granted, the trial only started today, and Senator Menendez is entitled to the same rights as any other citizen, meaning that he is innocent until proven guilty. I strongly suspect, based on what I have read, that there is sufficient evidence for the Department of Justice to obtain a conviction. This is a distraction that Congress, just back from their month-long recess and with many looming issues on their plate, does not need. It is also a black mark that the Democratic Party does not need just over a year before the crucial mid-term elections.
In addition to the distraction that the trial is certain to provide, it raises the question of whether Senator Menendez should be allowed to keep his Senate seat. The Republican National Committee has already begun a campaign aimed at pressuring Democratic senators to call on Menendez to step down if he’s convicted. In truth, I cannot argue against that. One of the biggest problems with Congress today is greed, and if Menendez is guilty of the accusations leveled against him, he acted solely out of greed, rather than in the best interest of the Constitution he swore to uphold. As such, if he is found guilty, he must be forced to step down.
However, the results of this will create a terrible situation in the Senate, one which will likely see a significant difference in the outcome of several issues. Why? Because if Menendez steps down from his position, the Governor of New Jersey will then appoint a person to finish out Menendez’ term, which is set to expire in January 2019 after the 2018 mid-term elections. And the Governor of New Jersey just happens to be none other than Chris Christie … a republican and one of Donald Trump’s personal boot-lickers. There is not a snowball’s chance in hell that Governor Christie will appoint a democrat, and it is guaranteed that he will appoint somebody who is certain to do Trump’s bidding.
The Senate is so closely divided with 52 republicans and 48 democrats, that every vote is a close call. Many votes have been determined by a single vote. Remember the failed ACA repeal where three republican senators, John McCain, Lisa Murkowski, and Susan Collins caused the bill to die? If Governor Christi appoints a replacement for Menendez, the Senate then becomes 53 republicans and only 47 democrats. Under this mix, the abomination of the ACA repeal would have passed, even with the opposition from the three republican senators.
There is one possible way this can have a different outcome. New Jersey will hold an election to elect a new governor on November 7, 2017. Governor Christie is not eligible to run, having already served two terms. The polls are currently showing the democratic candidate, Phil Murphy, to have a substantial lead (23%) over the republican candidate, Kim Guadagno. If Murphy is elected, and if Menendez is not forced to step down until after Murphy’s inauguration (a huge ‘if’), then it is likely that Murphy would appoint another democrat, and the mix of the Senate would remain as it is.
A report by John Fund in the National Review actually suggests that Governor Christie might appoint himself to fill the vacant senate seat, and Christie left the possibility open when he appeared on MSNBC’s Morning Joe. I mention this only in passing, for the reality is that it is not that simple. Christie would have to resign as governor, then the lieutenant governor could make the appointment. Not out of the realm of possibility, but I think it is highly unlikely.
If elected, Murphy’s inauguration would not be held until January 16, 2018. Is it possible that a final decision will not be rendered until after that date? I cannot say. The courts sometimes move very slowly, however in this case, the Department of Justice is involved, meaning Jeff Sessions, and I suspect that with so much at stake, a concerted push will be on to wrap it up rather quickly.
If Senator Menendez is, in fact, guilty of the charges against him, he has done a tremendous disservice, first of all to his constituents, the people of New Jersey who placed their faith in him and elected him. But even more, he has done a disservice to this nation and we may all pay a steep price for his greed and dishonesty.