Blue Hawk Down

When Democratic senators convened for a private luncheon on Thursday, all eyes were on Sen. Bob Menendez. The hard-nosed and hawkish New Jersey Democrat, a longtime heavyweight in congressional foreign policy, has faced a wave of calls from his own party to resign. It comes in the wake of a damning indictment alleging he secretly worked to advance the interests of a foreign power, Egypt, in exchange for bribes, and sought to influence criminal charges against businessmen involved in the scheme.

Menendez, who has denied any wrongdoing and pleaded not guilty to the charges, had to give up his gavel as chairman of the powerful Senate Foreign Relations Committee after the indictment was released last week. Going into the luncheon, he had two options: accede to the demands of the majority of Democratic senators calling on him to resign, or dig in his heels and fight.

To the surprise of no one who knows him, Menendez chose to fight.

During the meeting, according to two people with direct knowledge of it, Menendez doubled down on what he said in public: He is innocent of the charges and has no plans to step down. His defense appeared to win him no new allies. Sen. Chris Coons, another Democratic foreign-policy heavyweight who also chairs the Ethics Committee, left the luncheon when Menendez got up to speak. So did two other members of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee—Sens. Jeanne Shaheen and Brian Schatz, according to the people briefed on the matter. None of the nearly 30 Democratic senators who called on him to resign have backtracked.

Menendez’s defiant stand at the congressional luncheon offered a glimpse into the political fallout from the indictment, and a foretaste of major changes in one of the most historic and vaunted institutions in Congress, with significant implications for U.S. foreign policy.

Foreign Policy spoke with more than a dozen current and former staffers on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, as well as lawmakers and outside experts on the fallout of the indictment and what it means for Congress and the Biden administration’s agenda. Menendez’s office did not respond to a request for comment or interview.

The first is that the scandal has rocked a vaunted committee with a storied legacy in foreign policy, and one that has served as a relative bastion of bipartisanship and stability while the rest of Washington descends into hyper-partisan rancor. The committee has produced eight U.S. presidents and 19 secretaries of state, from Andrew Jackson to John F. Kennedy to Joe Biden. Its cadre of professional staff has gone on to leading roles in the State Department and Pentagon, including Antony Blinken, Biden’s secretary of state, whose job as Democratic staff director on the committee spring-boarded his rise.

Lawmakers and staffers alike say they are stunned and saddened by the revelations outlined in the indictment. “There’s no way other than to say the allegations against Sen. Menendez are horrific,” Sen. Ben Cardin, who succeeded Menendez as chairman of the committee, told reporters before the luncheon on Thursday. “That is extremely challenging for all of us here.”

The charges against Menendez and his wife directly implicate his work on the committee, including allegations that he shared a confidential blueprint of the U.S. Embassy in Egypt’s staffing rosters with an Egyptian businessman through his wife, who then forwarded it to Egyptian officials. “Such tasking by the Egyptians would be consistent with classic modus operandi in a recruitment operation,” Asha Rangappa, a former senior FBI official, and Marc Polymeropoulos, a former senior CIA official, wrote in Just Security.

The indictment also alleges that Menendez provided advance notice of non-public information on the release of U.S. military aid to Egypt and even ghost-wrote a letter for the government of Egypt requesting more U.S. military aid. The FBI has reportedly launched a counterintelligence probe into whether Egyptian intelligence services were involved in the alleged scheme, according to NBC News

Menendez has in the past week repeatedly insisted that the allegations are false. Menendez was previously charged with corruption, but those charges ended in a mistrial in 2017, and his message to his colleagues and supporters was that he overcame corruption charges before and could do so again. Still, there’s no modern precedent for the scandal the Senate Foreign Relations Committee now faces, even as Cardin and the top Republican on the committee, Idaho Sen. Jim Risch, vow to get immediately back to business on the committee’s work—if the looming government shutdown doesn’t stop them first.

A spokesperson for Risch downplayed the effect of the scandal on the committee itself. “One person alone does not determine the work of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, even the chairman,” the spokesperson said. “All four leaders of the House and Senate foreign relations committees have roles and rights as leaders of these important national security committees. Among other things, this helps to ensure one person does not have undue influence on the foreign policy of the U.S. Congress.”

Another takeaway is that Menendez stepping back from the committee is likely permanent, even if he overcomes the second round of corruption charges he has faced and wins an uphill reelection battle.

Menendez, who has served as either chair or ranking member of the committee for the better part of a decade, was a brash and strong-willed lawmaker who had no qualms getting into brass-knuckle political clashes with senior national security officials in Republican and Democratic administrations alike. His ouster removes an ardent hawk from a key Senate leadership position who challenged his own party on policies from Iran to engagement with Cuba to major foreign arms sales. It could give the Biden administration more leeway to defrost ties with Cuba, where every move it made was met with withering criticism from Menendez. He also stood out as a prominent supporter of Israel at a time when support for Israel in the Democratic caucus is wilting.

There could be some tangible impacts on foreign policy, too. Some committee aides hope that Cardin, who they say has a better personal rapport with Risch than Menendez did, can work more effectively to address the growing backlog of nominations for senior diplomatic posts sitting before the committee. The day after Cardin took the committee gavel, the committee sent out a notice that it would be holding nomination hearings for the posts of U.S. ambassador to Somalia and Liberia, as well as a top posting for the U.S. Peace Corps.

There are 37 nominees for senior diplomatic and foreign aid posts pending on the Senate floor, including 23 ambassador nominees, an issue that’s been plaguing the State Department for years as ambassador posts sit unfilled for months or longer. “That’s outrageous,” Cardin said. “Not having a confirmed ambassador in a country weakens the United States’ national security.”

Menendez’s sidelining also removes one roadblock to a planned U.S. sale of F-16 fighter jets to NATO ally Turkey. Menendez led the charge in blocking the arms sale over Turkey’s internal repression and opposition to allowing Finland and Sweden to join the NATO alliance. (Finland has joined, but Sweden is still being held up by Turkey and Hungary.) “One of our most important problems regarding the F-16s were the activities of U.S. Sen. Bob Menendez against our country,” Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan told reporters this week, as The Associated Press reported. Cardin declined to say whether he would adopt Menendez’s position on the arms sale, though other senators remain opposed to it.

Finally, the fallout from the indictment could bring new levels of scrutiny to the U.S. relationship with Egypt, a longtime ally that is one of the top recipients of U.S. military aid in the world, worth around $1.3 billion per year. Sen. Chris Murphy, a leading progressive Democrat on the committee who has called on Menendez to resign, told Foreign Policy in a statement that he wanted an investigation into Egypt’s actions with Menendez. Senators “have a responsibility to understand whether Egypt was running an illicit influence campaign on the Foreign Relations Committee,” he said.

The United States has for decades viewed Egypt as a reliable partner and ally, particularly in the context of its relationship with Israel, but a growing number of lawmakers on both sides of the aisle are questioning that orthodoxy. Human rights and democracy groups charge that Egypt under President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi has taken a sharply authoritarian bent, and say that continuing the U.S. relationship with Cairo undermines U.S. values and democracy promotion.

A group of lawmakers has repeatedly tried to cut aid to Egypt in recent years, though it has only made limited gains. Days before Menendez’s indictment was unveiled, the Biden administration approved $235 million in aid to Egypt, invoking a waiver on the grounds of national security. Only a fraction of U.S. aid was withheld, to the dismay of lawmakers more concerned about human rights. Since 1946, the United States has provided Egypt with more than $85 billion in military and economic aid.

Human rights advocates and other policy experts are already calling for the Biden administration to rethink that decision. “The immediate action should be to put a hold on that assistance to Egypt until there is proper time to investigate this further,” said Mai El-Sadany, executive director of the Tahrir Institute for Middle East Policy, a think tank. “Allowing this to go through would send the wrong message for the U.S. at a very wrong time.”

Rep. Gregory Meeks, the top Democrat on the House Foreign Affairs Committee, on Friday called for the administration to pause a portion of funding to Egypt but did not mention the Menendez indictment in his statement.

The Egyptian Embassy in Washington did not respond to a request for comment.

Egypt has many supporters in Congress beyond Menendez, and Menendez has repeatedly criticized the Egyptian government over human rights violations and detaining political prisoners and journalists. But human rights advocates and lawmakers hope the Menendez indictment triggers a broad rethink of U.S.-Egypt relations.

Tom Malinowski, a former New Jersey Democratic representative who also served as a senior State Department official in the Obama administration, says it’s well past time to reassess the U.S. relationship with Egypt. He has joined a chorus of New Jersey Democrats calling on Menendez to resign.

“The Egyptians behave as if they can get away with just about anything. They act as if they have protectors behind the scenes in Washington who will ensure the money keeps flowing no matter what,” Malinowski said. “This episode perhaps helps explain in part why they have treated the U.S. aid as an entitlement for so many years.”

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