Sen. Robert Menendez (D-N.J.) in South Orange, N.J., in August 2015. (Brendan McDermid/Reuters)
Opinion writer

Sen. Robert Menendez (D-N.J.), victorious in his corruption trial, has resumed his place as the ranking Democrat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. A committed hawk on Iran and Russia, and a stalwart defender of human rights, Menendez seems to be relishing his return and the opportunity to skewer President Trump — from the right.

He was one of few speakers at the American Israel Public Affairs Committee policy conference who made the connection between Iran and Russia:

Iran is building an advanced military presence in Syria. And we risk willfully disregarding this reality if we cling to a repeatedly failing policy of ‘negotiating’ with Russia.  That is precisely what we are doing if we continue to seek out agreements to “de-escalate areas” in Syria. These agreements with Russia are dangerous — they are in fact paving the way for Iran to stay in Syria.  That’s why it’s well past time for the President to recognize that in Syria, here at home, or around the world, Russia is not a partner for stability or peace. 

Russia has made its allegiances clear with its slaughter of civilians, dropping bombs on hospitals, on homes, on humanitarian aid convoys working to care for a people under siege.  And [Russian President Vladimir] Putin continues to exploit the migration crisis to sow discord throughout Western Europe and continue his campaign to undermine the post-World War II international order. The links between Moscow and Tehran and Damascus are crystal clear.

Calling out Trump for his bromance with Putin, he argued, “Without American leadership, I fear there will be no international response to the Russian-backed Iranian entrenchment in Syria. We saw it last month, when Iran sent a drone into Israeli airspace. And the [Bashar al-Assad] regime turned its Russian-provided air defense system on an Israeli fighter jet.” More generally, Menendez made the case for America’s principled leadership in the world: 

“We must be unequivocal in our support for our allies. We must assert our global leadership, driven by our principles, values and security, and we cannot cede this leadership to our adversaries. We must stop wasting time testing Russia’s resolve on Iran.  Indeed, President Putin is happy to keep this Administration wringing its hands while Iran moves in next door to Israel. My friends, this situation is untenable and absolutely unacceptable.”

Returning to the Senate floor on Tuesday, Menendez continued to blast Trump on Russia, arguing that “there is one thing that President Trump has shown rock solid consistency on since taking office. And that is his shameful embrace of Russian President Vladimir Putin and his refusal to protect American democratic institutions.” The senator deployed some of the most direct language we’ve heard — from either the left or the right — accusing the president of not looking out for American interests:

President Trump’s embrace of Putin has put a straitjacket on U.S. policy towards Russia. In many ways, we’re more vulnerable today than we were in 2016. Think about it. Mr. Putin made a serious gamble when he decided to interfere in our election — a gamble that would normally draw the ire of any American president, regardless of their political party.

But, as we know, nothing about this administration is normal. And the truth is we are in far greater peril today because Mr. Putin knows that he has a friend in the White House. A friend who won’t do anything to stop him from interfering in our democracy, nor those of our allies. A friend who won’t even issue a statement condemning Putin’s nuclear saber-rattling last week, when he proudly showed a video simulating a nuclear attack on Florida.

His immediate topic was the president’s refusal to impose sanctions on Russia “as the unacceptable delays in establishing a strategy for countering the Kremlin’s propaganda and disinformation.” (It has been revealed that the State Department has spent none of the $120 million allocated for the Global Engagement Center, intended to counter Russian propaganda and information warfare.) He reeled off a list of Trump failures:

President Trump has imposed no sanctions in response to Russia’s cyberaggression, as required by Section 224 [of the Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act].  President Trump has imposed no sanctions related to Russian crude oil products, as required by section 225. President Trump has imposed no sanctions on serious human rights abusers in the Russian Federation, as required by section 228.  President Trump has imposed no sanctions on those facilitating the transfer of assets owned by the Russian people to oligarchs hand-picked by Putin, as required under section 233. President Trump has imposed no sanctions punishing Russia for its transfer of arms to Syria, as required under section 234.  And I could go on — but you get the picture.

Menendez even suggested that if the administration was looking for offenses worthy of sanctions, it might note that “[in] November Spain’s government discovered Russia state-sponsored groups using social media to spread disinformation and influence political events in Catalonia. And just last week, the German government pointed to a massive cyberhack against its foreign ministry, allegedly carried out by a Russian state-sponsored group called Snake.”

He returned again and again to the demand that Trump “finally develop a comprehensive strategy to shore up American democracy against Russian malign influence and implementing it without delay.” The remarkable political phenomenon we now observe is that Republicans who were apoplectic over President Barack Obama’s insufficiently muscular foreign policy now cannot manage a harsh word about Trump’s pro-Putin inclinations. If they keep this up, they’ll hand the national-security issue over to Democrats who have discovered their inner Scoop Jackson.