CNN dropped a pretty big scoop on Friday, reporting that the Justice Department is preparing to file corruption charges against Robert Menendez, the Democratic senior senator from New Jersey. Menendez has been under investigation for his relationship with Salomon Melgen, a Florida ophthalmologist and Menendez donor, and apparently DOJ will allege that the senator “used his Senate office to push the business interests of [Melgen] in exchange for gifts,” according to CNN. Menendez, of course, denies any wrongdoing.
Typically, when charges of corruption surface against a Democrat, Republicans and conservatives react by enthusiastically tying that particular tainted Democrat and every known Democrat and alleging a “culture of corruption.” (Democrats do precisely the same thing to Republicans, in accordance with the long-established rules of political warfare.) But news of pending charges against Menendez elicited a very different response from conservatives, who suspect that Menendez is the victim of a politically motivated conspiracy by President Obama.
It’s a fairly straightforward theory. Menendez is a high-profile critic of the Obama administration’s diplomatic policy towards Iran, and is the leader of a group of Democratic senators who were going to side with Republicans in voting to approve new sanctions on the country. The Obama administration opposes those sanctions, warning that a vote to approve them will derail its sensitive diplomatic engagement with Iran over its nuclear ambitions. And so, per conservative theorizing, Obama ordered the Justice Department to take down Menendez as retribution.
Matt Drudge accompanied his banner headline on the charges with a series of secondary headlines noting that Menendez is the “Dem Top Critic of Obama Iran Deal” and the “White House’s least favorite Dem.” The Weekly Standard’s subhed to their Menendez story noted that the “New Jersey Democrat is one of the top critics of Obama's Iran deal.” Conservatives on Twitter either made cutesy references to the “amazing” timing of the news or flat-out accused the administration of abusing its authority in ways that are possibly Nixonian.
There you have it: the moment word comes down that the administration is filing corruption charges against a Democratic senator, that in itself somehow also becomes an act of corruption.
It’s an easy accusation for conservatives to make since there’s really no way to disprove it – how can we know for sure that this didn’t happen? And they don’t need to cite any actual evidence for their readers to accept the obvious truth behind it. After six years of accusing the administration of secretly covering up Benghazi and secretly ordering the IRS to attack the Tea Party and secretly intervening on behalf of the New Black Panthers, conservatives are ready to believe that the administration is capable of just about any act of political malfeasance one could imagine. Why bother collecting evidence when you can just lean on existing prejudice and let correlation imply causation?
The problems with this Menendez theory, however, are obvious. It’s not as if Menendez has recently emerged as a critic of the administration on Iran. He’s the top Democrat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, and he’s been sparring with the administration over its Iran diplomacy for quite a while. It would be tough for conservatives to pinpoint a moment at which news of a Menendez indictment wouldn’t have had an impact on the debate over the U.S. posture towards Iran.
It’s also a wildly cynical posture for the right to take. Conservatives believe that Menendez is guilty. They think he’s thoroughly corrupt and unfit to serve as senator from New Jersey. But they also want him around for as long as they need him to provide an influential voice against the administration’s Iran policy. So when news comes down that he could potentially head off to prison, they complain because they perceive it as a setback to their immediate interests. “Sure, he’s a criminal, but why make a federal case of it now?”
As for the Obama administration, they just can’t win. For years they’ve been under attack from conservatives for politicizing the Justice Department. Now that they’re ready to slap a senior Democratic official with corruption charges, they’re being accused of once again politicizing the Justice Department. Menendez, for his part, reacted to the news by releasing a statement that said “the start of this investigation is suspect.” So congratulations, conservatives: you’re helping a Democratic senator accused of corruption make himself out to be a martyr.