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Bob Menendez, Al Franken, and the presumption of innocence Judd Legum

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Bob and Nadine Menendez in Egypt in October 2021 (via U.S. Attorney’s Office, Southern District of New York)

“Bob Menendez has been a dedicated public servant and is always fighting hard for the people of New Jersey. He has a right to due process and a fair trial.” 

That was the response of Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY) to the indictment of Senator Bob Menendez (D-NJ) on Friday. Federal prosecutors accused Menendez and his wife, Nadine, of accepting hundreds of thousands of dollars in bribes in exchange for using his official position to benefit the Government of Egypt and others. Schumer’s description of Menendez as a “dedicated public servant” who is “always fighting hard for the people of New Jersey” is belied by the granular evidence of brazen corruption laid out by prosecutors in the indictment. 

As Chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Menendez had the power to approve or place holds on “foreign military financing and sales of military equipment to Egypt.” In exchange for approving the sale of military equipment to Egypt, the indictment alleges, a New Jersey businessman with close ties to Egyptian officials, Wael Hana, agreed to pay Nadine Menendez though his company. 

According to the indictment, Bob Menendez would text Nadine advanced details of official actions approving arms sales. Nadine would then forward these messages to Hana, who would pass the information to the Egyptian government. 

Hana’s company, IS EG Halal, provided certification that food exports from the United States to Egypt were “compliant with halal standards.” Although Hana had no experience in halal certification, this became a lucrative enterprise when Egypt granted IS EG Halal a monopoly over Halal certification in 2019. When “the USDA contacted the Government of Egypt and sought reconsideration of its grant of monopoly rights to IS EG Halal,” Menendez intervened and “called a high-level USDA official and insisted that the USDA stop opposing IS EG Halal’s status as sole halal certifier.” 

Hana and another individual allegedly involved in the scheme, Joe Uribe, also agreed to buy Nadine Menendez a $60,000 Mercedes in exchange for Bob Menendez’s help in resolving a fraud investigation of one of Uribe’s associates. According to the indictment, Bob Menendez “contacted a senior state prosecutor at the [New Jersey Attorney General]’s Office who supervised the prosecution” at least twice and “attempted to pressure [the prosecutor] to resolve the prosecution more favorably to the defendant.”

There are several other allegations in the indictment of instances where Menendez used his position as a powerful U.S. Senator to secure bribes. In the end, authorities found over $480,000 in cash at Bob and Nadine Menendez’s house, much of which was hidden in closets and clothing — including a jacket featuring Bob Menendez’s name and the U.S. Senate seal. 

Authorities also recovered over $100,000 in gold bars. 

Despite the prodigious evidence of criminal conduct presented in the indictment, Schumer is correct that Bob Menendez and the other defendants have a “right to due process and a fair trial.” Menendez also has a right to the legal presumption of innocence. But Menendez will be afforded due process in a court of law. There is not, however, a Constitutional right to be a member of the U.S. Senate. Whether Menendez should retain his Senate seat is a political matter, not a legal one. 

The issue centers around the distinction between legal innocence and actual innocence. Absent a plea deal, a jury will decide whether Menendez broke the law. But a jury will not decide whether Menendez is “innocent.” It will decide whether he is legally guilty, meaning the prosecutors proved their case beyond a reasonable doubt, or legally not guilty. 

The Constitution contemplates a higher standard for elected officials than avoiding criminal convictions. The U.S. Senate is empowered to expel any member “for disorderly behavior” — it requires a two-thirds vote. 

As a practical matter, the political calendar does not afford Schumer and other Senate Democrats the luxury of waiting until the conclusion of a trial before making a judgment on Menendez’s conduct. Menendez is facing reelection next year, and the New Jersey primary will be held in June 2024, which is likely before Menendez’s case goes to trial. Democrats will have to decide whether to support Menendez’s reelection campaign or back a different candidate. 

High-ranking elected Democrats in New Jersey, including the Governor, have called on Menendez to resign. Most of the New Jersey Democrats in the U.S. House are also calling for his resignation. But thus far, most Senate Democrats — the people with the power to remove Menendez — have decided to stay silent. Only Senator John Fetterman (D-PA) has called on Menendez to resign

The case of Al Franken

In 2017, Leeann Tweeden, a conservative radio talk show host, accused then-Senator Al Franken (D-MN) of “having forced an unwanted kiss on her during a 2006 U.S.O. tour.” Over the next couple of weeks, seven other women accused Franken of inappropriate touching or kissing. About half of Franken’s accusers remain anonymous. There were no criminal charges or any investigation of Franken’s alleged conduct. 

Nevertheless, Schumer called on Franken to resign immediately, urging not to wait for the “due process” of an Ethics Committee investigation:

Senator Franken should resign. I consider Senator Franken a dear friend and greatly respect his accomplishments, but he has a higher obligation to his constituents and the Senate, and he should step down immediately.

Schumer was joined by more than 30 of his Democratic colleagues, many of whom are in the Senate today, who also called on Franken to resign. “As national leaders, we must hold ourselves to a higher standard,” Senator Tammy Duckworth (D-IL) said. “[W]e must lead by example to ensure every person is treated with the dignity and respect they deserve. This isn’t about Democrats or Republicans, it’s about our society.” John Tester (D-MT) said Franken should resign because “[e]lected officials must be held to a high standard.”

But Schumer, Duckworth, Tester, and the dozens of other Democrats who called for Franken to resign prior to any investigation have not held Menendez to the same standard. 

For example, in 2017, Senator Dick Durbin (D-IL) said Franken “should resign from the Senate.” Asked on Sunday if Menendez should resign, Durbin said Menendez was entitled to the “presumption of innocence.” Durbin said Menendez should decide whether or not resignation was appropriate. 

Unlike Franken, Menendez was a member of Senate leadership and, as former chair of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, Menendez has personally assisted the campaigns of many Senators, including by raising money. 

Menendez and Dr. Melgen

This is not the first time Menendez has been charged with public corruption. He was also indicted in 2015 “in connection with a bribery scheme in which Menendez allegedly accepted gifts” from Florida ophthalmologist Salomon Melgen “in exchange for using the power of his Senate office to benefit Melgen’s financial and personal interests.” There was a three-month trial that ended in a hung jury, which means they were unable to come to a consensus about Menendez’s legal guilt. Ultimately, some of the charges were dismissed by a judge and the government decided not to pursue a new trial on the charges that remained.

In a statement, Menendez cited the Melgen trial as evidence he would be vindicated again:

I have been falsely accused before because I refused to back down to the powers that be and the people of New Jersey were able to see through the smoke and mirrors and recognize I was innocent.

The government was not able to establish legal guilt beyond a reasonable doubt with all members of the jury before. But was the trial proof that Menendez was actually innocent? Not according to the Senate Ethics Committee. After the conclusion of Menendez’s trial, the Committee conducted its own investigation of Menendez’s conduct. Here was the Committee’s conclusion:

The Committee has found that over a six-year period you knowingly and repeatedly accepted gifts of significant value from Dr. Melgen without obtaining required Committee approval, and that you failed to publicly disclose certain gifts as required by Senate Rule and federal law. Additionally, while accepting these gifts, you used your position as a Member of the Senate to advance Dr. Melgen’s personal and business interests. The Committee has determined that this conduct violated Senate Rules, federal law, and applicable standards of conduct. 

Despite this stark conclusion, the Committee issued a mild punishment. Menendez was required to “repay the fair market value of all impermissible gifts not already repaid,” and the Committee issued a “Public Letter of Admonition.” 

According to the indictment this week, by the time the Committee issued its letter in April 2018, Menendez had already begun his next scheme to abuse his official position for cash, gold, and luxury cars. How much longer will Menendez’s Senate colleagues treat him with kid gloves?

 

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WATCH: ‘This Is My First Rodeo’ | Ben Meets America Ben Kawaller

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In the latest stop on his cross-country quest to understand America, Ben Kawaller watches men hurl cows to the ground.

Last month I attended The American Rodeo in Arlington, Texas, a city of around 400,000 souls situated between Dallas and Fort Worth. This was my first rodeo, and it did not take me long after entering its host venue, the gargantuan Globe Life Field, to realize that I did not know what a rodeo was. If you’d asked me six weeks ago to define the term, I would have said something like, “It’s when you watch someone career around an enclosed pen on an animal.” 

Which is actually not too far off. But what I hadn’t realized is that a rodeo is actually a sporting event. 

You see, some people are especially good at bending these animals to their will, and if you are one of those people, you can win competitions for things like making the animals run very fast, or tying the animals up very quickly, or not dying while trying to sit on one of the animals.

Of course, I wasn’t really there for the games; I was there to talk to the crowd about what makes our society so divided. If you’re tuning in for the first time to my new series—“Ben Meets America”—I was born and raised in progressive Brooklyn, I now live in West Hollywood, and I will admit to being soft in some fundamental way. Suffice it to say I get a more transcendent high from watching a torch song than I do from watching a man hurl a small cow to the ground.

But, in fact, theater and rodeo have their similarities. If you’ve been to a play in recent years, you will have suffered the degradation of a “land acknowledgement.” This is when the audience is told before the show—either in an announcement or in the program notes—that they’ve gathered on land stolen from whatever Native American tribe existed there years ago. My sense is that some of this is rooted in the idea that America itself is fundamentally illegitimate. Whatever’s behind it, the inclusion of a land acknowledgement has become de rigueur.

I did not think conservatives did land acknowledgements, so I was surprised when the Native American actor Mo Brings Plenty appeared before the start of one of the competitions and performed a minute or two of indigenous wailing. I believe the intent of this was to, well, acknowledge the fact that Native American bloodshed was central to the expansion of the American West. What I did not expect was the incongruence of what came after. Watch the video and you’ll see what I mean. I’m still puzzling over its significance.

In the end, however, I decided I prefer the conservative version of a land acknowledgement. Unlike the inane liberal sacrament, it appears to be capable of expressing two truths at once: that oceans of indigenous blood were spilled in the creation of this country, and that we live in one of the greatest nations on earth.

Even if one of our favorite spectator sports is man versus cow.

Only paid subscribers can see Ben’s video on The American Rodeo. Become one today and scroll down to watch.

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April 14, 2024 Garamond

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Senate spotlight: A Trump Republican’s China problem Judd Legum

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November’s election will not only determine which party controls the White House but also the United States Senate. Currently, the Democratic caucus holds a narrow 51-49 advantage. Control of the chamber will come down to a handful of competitive races. This is the first installment in a series that takes a deep dive into the issues shaping these campaigns. 

In Ohio, businessman Bernie Moreno (R) is attempting to unseat Senator Sherrod Brown (D). Ohio, once a swing state, has been trending Republican. Moreno’s campaign strategy is to attach himself at the hip to Donald Trump. He refers to himself as the “Trump endorsed Republican nominee for US Senate from Ohio.” This helped him easily win the Republican primary against a field of more politically experienced opponents.  

In a potential second term, Trump is vowing to declare economic war on China, promising to “tax China to build America up.” Trump’s plan is to revoke China’s most favored nation trading status and impose a tariff on Chinese goods of up to 60%. (The policy would cost the typical American household thousands of dollars annually and increase inflation.) Imports of “essential goods” from China, including electronics, steel, and pharmaceuticals, would be completely banned

Moreno has taken a similar approach, saying he is running for Senate to “Beat Communist China.” To bolster his anti-China credentials, Moreno claims to have a history of combating Chinese power. These stories, however, don’t stand up to scrutiny.

Moreno made his fortune through buying and selling car dealerships. As his wealth increased, so did his interest in Republican politics. In 2011, former Ohio Governor John Kasich (R) appointed him to the board of trustees at Cleveland State, one of Ohio’s public universities. Moreno served as chairman of the Cleveland State board from 2016 to 2018.

Confucius Institutes, which offer “Chinese language and culture programs,” were established at numerous U.S. universities beginning in 2005. They were partially funded by the Chinese government. Over time, there were bipartisan concerns that Confucius Institutes were being used to promote Chinese government propaganda or even to facilitate espionage. On the campaign trail, Moreno has repeatedly claimed that, in his role as chair of Cleveland State’s Board of Trustees, he eliminated the university’s Confucius Institute.

Here is how Moreno described his role in a March 2023 campaign event:

I chaired the board of trustees at Cleveland State University, and I’m very proud of the fact that when I was there, we got rid of our Confucius Institute. We made certain that we focused everybody on student achievement, and we respected free speech on campus.

He made a nearly identical claim in October 2023. But it is a lie.

Moreno’s service on the board ended in May 2018. Cleveland State did not shut down its Confucius Institute until 2021. The truth is, while Moreno was on the board, he repeatedly approved funding for Cleveland State’s Confucius Institute. In 2016, when Moreno was still vice chairman, he voted to approve $38,000 in funding for the school’s Confucius Institute. The following year, as chairman, Moreno voted to re-up the funding. Minutes from these meetings show that Moreno did not express any concerns about the Confucius Institute

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Moreno told the Columbus Dispatch that he deserves credit for the elimination of the Confucius Institute at Cleveland State because of “his role in the hiring of Harlan Sands, who was Cleveland State’s president when the institute closed.” There are a couple of issues with this response. First, this is not what Moreno said previously. He clearly said that the board “got rid” of the Confucius Institute while he was chair. Second, Cleveland State did not eliminate the Confucius Institute because of the initiative of President Sands. Cleveland State, along with nearly all other universities, closed its Confucius Institute after Congress passed legislation in 2018 and 2020 limiting federal funding for universities that maintained the Confucius Institutes. From 2019 to 2023, the number of Confucius Institutes operating in the United States went from about 100 to fewer than 5.

The truth about Moreno and Chinese-made SUVs

“When I was a General Motors dealer, I sold Buicks. The Buick Envision was made in China. I told General Motors I wouldn’t sell one of them, don’t even ship it to me,” Moreno said during a February 10, 2024 radio interview. “They threatened me and sent me all kinds of nasty notes… we have to actually take this stand…”

That story, which Moreno also told during his brief run for Senate in 2021, is a lie. 

In reality, Moreno sold the Buick Envision at his dealership for at least five years — from 2014 to 2019 — and promoted the vehicle repeatedly on its social media channels, an investigation by NY1 revealed

A December 13, 2016 video published on the “Bernie Moreno Companies” YouTube page begins with this testimonial: “My name is Kayla McCullough. I purchased a 2017 Buick Envision from Buick GMC of Beachwood… I highly recommend you visit the team at Buick GMC of Beachwood, a Bernie Moreno company.”

Moreno’s campaign “acknowledged to Spectrum News that his dealership did sell the Chinese-made SUVs.” It claimed that “in response to the closure of the Lordstown Plant here in Ohio [in March 2019],  Bernie made a decision to stop any new inventory of Envision’s from being sold at his dealership. After he sold off the inventory he already had on the lot, he refused to take orders for more Envisions.” This explanation, however, makes little sense as the Envision was also produced in China and never at Ohio’s Lordstown Plant. Moreno’s dealerships also continued to advertise for the Envision months after the closure of the plant. 

 

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