Under what circumstances should an elected politician resign?
The indictment of Senator Robert Menendez on corruption charges last week has raised that question again, and it can be a tricky one. It also led to passionate debate after allegations against Bill Clinton, Donald Trump and Ralph Northam (none of whom resigned) as well as Al Franken, Andrew Cuomo and Richard Nixon (all of whom did).
Yesterday, a flood of other senators called on Menendez to step down, as my colleague Annie Karni explains. Some of the first calls for resignation came from Democratic senators running for re-election next year in swing states, and Senator Cory Booker — Menendez’s fellow New Jersey Democrat — joined the group, too. Booker said that the indictment contained “shocking allegations of corruption and specific, disturbing details of wrongdoing.”
Menendez has rejected those calls and asked people “to allow all the facts to be presented.”
In today’s newsletter, I’ll try to make the best case on each side of the debate.
He should quit
At the crux of the argument that Menendez should resign is the idea that the standards for a U.S. senator should be higher than merely not having a criminal conviction. Serving as a senator is a privilege, not a right, and Menendez has offered no good explanation for his actions — even if they are not criminal.
The federal indictment tells a jarring story. During a search of Menendez’s home and safe deposit box, investigators found more than $650,000 in cash and gold bars, some of it hidden in clothing or closets. On envelopes containing money were the fingerprints of Fred Daibes, a real-estate developer and Menendez fund-raiser.
Prosecutors say that Daibes was a go-between who gave money to Menendez and his wife, Nadine, in exchange for Menendez’s intervention to protect the monopoly of a New Jersey company that certified meat. Investigators say Menendez also pressured a future federal prosecutor not to pursue charges against another of his fund-raisers.
The closest to a rationale that Menendez has offered is that his parents grew up in Cuba, where, he said, their money was confiscated (although he didn’t explain the precise connection to his own piles of cash). He has also said that the prosecutors are trying to criminalize ordinary politics. He has not said whether he considers cash gifts in exchange for senatorial influence to be ordinary politics.
Many other politicians believe that he has damaged the credibility of the Senate and of the Democratic Party. By remaining in office without offering a reasonable explanation of his behavior, he has contributed to cynicism about politics, his critics say, and he is unable to do his job effectively. (“His refusal to resign is a problem for Democrats both substantively and politically,” writes Michelle Goldberg of Times Opinion.)
The one Democrat who benefits from Menendez’s remaining in the Senate, the critics say, is Menendez.
He should fight
Six years ago, another member of the U.S. senate faced calls to resign from office. That senator was Franken, the Minnesota Democrat and former comedian whom several women had accused of touching them in inappropriate ways. After weeks of criticism, Franken did resign.
He has since said he regrets having done so. Some other Democrats also regret the rush to judge him. In hindsight, they believe that Franken at least deserved a chance to contest the accusations in an ethics hearing. (Jane Mayer of The New Yorker has written a helpful article about the case.)
The Franken case offers a reminder that the American political system does have ways to adjudicate accusations against elected politicians. Most important, members of Congress do not have lifetime tenure. Ultimately, voters can decide whether a politician’s behavior is disqualifying.
As it happens, Menendez’s current Senate term — his third — expires in about 15 months. Another New Jersey Democrat, Representative Andy Kim, has already announced a primary challenge, and more may follow. Voters can make a judgment soon.
This is not the first time that Menendez has been indicted in a corruption case. Federal prosecutors also charged him in 2015, but the jury deadlocked and prosecutors declined to retry him. Later that year, New Jersey’s voters re-elected him. Menendez understandably mentioned that history during his fiery public remarks this week.
In effect, he seemed to be saying: What’s the rush? Don’t I deserve another opportunity to persuade people the prosecutors have overreached?
When politicians resign under pressure, it is often because they understand that they could otherwise be impeached and removed from office. That was true of Cuomo, Nixon and Eliot Spitzer.
When politicians are unlikely to be removed, they rarely quit, and Menendez faces little risk of removal. Only the Senate can expel one of its members. It has not done so since the Civil War.
Yes, there are exceptions — politicians who quit voluntarily. Franken was one. Spiro Agnew, Nixon’s first vice president, was another; he resigned in 1973 as part of a plea deal with prosecutors. But Agnew highlights the larger principle: Politicians don’t tend to quit unless they think that doing so benefits them.
Maybe Menendez’s situation will become so uncomfortable that he changes his mind and steps down. Or maybe New Jersey’s voters will again decide his political fate.
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