On October 23, Senator Bob Menendez pleaded not guilty to charges that he accepted bribes from the Egyptian government and acted as a foreign agent for the country’s interests from his position as head of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. Despite his characterization of these charges as “outrageous,” the cartoonishly large stockpile of gold bars, cash and luxury vehicles found in his home last month contradicts this denial. According to the charges, Menendez and his wife Nadine accepted the above mentioned rewards, a no-show job and payment toward a home mortgage in exchange for protecting three New Jersey businessmen and facilitating arms sales from the United States to Egypt. Although 70 percent
of New Jersey voters want Menendez to resign from the Senate in light of these revelations, he has insisted on remaining in his position and promised that he will eventually be exonerated.
While the existence of Sopranos-style graft within the “most powerful single chamber in any legislative body in the world” shocked many Americans, mainstream media has covered this corruption as a one-off episode within the wider pantheon of American democracy. The uniquely stupid and hilarious way these crimes were committed certainly helps paint such a picture: Menendez’s text messages with an Egyptian official were blatantly self-incriminating, and the fact that the official replied with a simple thumbs-up emoji
makes for political satire that practically writes itself. However, this uniquely flagrant misconduct shouldn’t distract us from the fact that Menendez’s corruption symbolizes more significant problems in American foreign and domestic policy.
In an insightful article from The Intercept,
investigative reporters Ken Klippenstein and Daniel Boguslaw asked former CIA officials about their thoughts on how Menendez could have become an agent of the Egyptian government. Former analysts like Michael Landingham said that, according to the indictment against Menendez, it “certainly appears like the Egyptian government was using a classic source-recruitment pattern to get Menendez and his wife to spy for them.” This strategy involves starting off with small requests of the would-be spy, often for information that is “not public, but not necessarily classified,” as a way of gauging their willingness to collect intelligence on more serious matters. In developing these practices of espionage, Egypt has had plenty of examples to draw from.
The CIA has operated in Egypt since 1952 when they initiated Project FF, an effort by the agency to pressure the notoriously corrupt government of King Farouk to undertake some progressive reforms in order to prevent a dreaded communist revolution. Although the agency’s influence in the country ebbed during the socialist-leaning government of Gamel Abdel Nasser, the agency’s sway recovered under the U.S.-aligned military regimes that took over after Nasser’s death in 1970. As Egypt became the U.S.’s second most important ally in the Middle East (after Israel), the country’s intelligence officials were trained in (or at least influenced by) CIA practices. Bob Menendez’s dealings with Egypt seem to be the latest example of domestic blowback from American political interference abroad. As the example of Afghanistan’s mujahideen has shown, it’s all fine and dandy to give your allies weapons and training in the short term, but decades later, they may use those same practices against you.
One of the most shocking parts of this case for me is simply how cheap American politicians seem to be. While Menendez’s loot was certainly valuable, it pales in comparison to the amount of public money he was able to influence the direction of as one of the most powerful senators. For example, the arms deal he ushered in through Congress on the Egyptian government’s behalf was worth $99 million. On top of that, he divulged “nonpublic” information about the U.S. military to Egyptian officials and ghostwrote letters to fellow senators urging their vote to lift a hold on $300 million in aid to Egypt.
Menendez’s corruption was also domestic: Prosecutors allege he received hundreds of thousands of dollars from New Jersey businessmen Wael Hana, Jose Uribe and Fred Daibes
to push through the nomination of Phillip Sellinger as a U.S. attorney. The businessmen believed they “could influence Sellinger” to protect Daibes from a pending criminal prosecution. Menendez faced but avoided corruption charges in 2015 for allegedly providing political favors to Salomon Melgen, a doctor who committed $90 million in Medicare fraud. In exchange, the charges state that Menendez was allowed to borrow Melgen’s private jet for vacations in the Dominican Republic and the Bahamas. I find it very disheartening that the influence of one of the most powerful politicians in the most powerful country in the world can be bought off with the lifestyle of a mafia underboss.
Finally, I’m struck by the contrast between fervent media coverage of the Menendez case and the continued lack of coverage of the abundant corruption that many other congresspeople are involved in. Since the Citizens United decision in 2010, lobbying, a softer term for political corruption, has been freed of many of the regulations formerly applied by the Federal Election Campaign Act in 1974. In a way similar to what Menendez allegedly did, thousands of legislators across the country accept campaign donations in exchange for particularistic influence in government. In 2022, oil companies that are actively contributing to a climate catastrophe that will threaten the lives of millions spent $124.4 million lobbying the federal government, all legally.
Menendez’s corruption may be more flashy and brazen, but in reality, the only difference between him and many other politicians is that he was too greedy or too stupid to keep his graft within the generously wide legal boundaries. Menendez’s going to jail would put only a tiny dent in the vast flow of money that has degraded our political culture and marginalized the interest of average Americans. Stricter campaign financial legislation is the most obvious solution, but that would require the votes of Republican and Democratic politicians alike, both sides of which profit from the current arrangement. Even if it were to pass, the conservative-dominated Supreme Court would almost certainly reaffirm the Citizens United precedent. Unless some political crisis radically affects the structure of the U.S. government, it’s likely that decades will pass before another opportunity opens to adequately reform our campaign finance legislation.