Sen. Robert Menendez, given a clean bill of legal health last week by the Justice Department, resumed his position Tuesday as the senior Democrat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.
Menendez (D-N.J.), a free thinker on diplomacy issues who sometimes strays from Democratic dogma, surrendered the post nearly three years ago when he was indicted on corruption charges. That trial, held over several months last fall, ended in a hung jury just before Thanksgiving, and in media interviews afterward, jurors signaled deep skepticism with the Justice Department’s case against Menendez.
After first signaling they would retry him this year, federal prosecutors last week asked the judge to dismiss all charges against the senator stemming from allegations that he took gifts and political donations from an eye doctor whom he tried to help in his disputes with federal regulators.
No longer under indictment, Menendez benefits from internal party rules that return the ranking-Democrat post to him, sending Sen. Benjamin L. Cardin (D-Md.) to the ranking-Democrat post on the Small Business and Entrepreneurship Committee. Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) coordinated the announcement with the two senators, ending Cardin’s interim service as the top Democrat on the highly visible committee while Menendez fought his criminal case.
“I will make certain the Committee holds President Trump and his Administration accountable for its capricious and erratic approach to foreign policy,” Menendez said in a statement issued from Schumer’s office. “Now more than ever, I believe that Congress must assert its role in pursuing a robust American foreign policy that champions the values of democracy, peace, and the preservation of human rights around the globe.”
The New Jersey Democrat, Schumer said in a statement, “has the expertise and grit needed to strike bipartisan compromises as well as stand up to the President when his rash decisions impact our national security and our allies abroad. Senator Menendez knows how to hold this Administration’s feet to the fire.”
Menendez remains under a probe by the Senate Ethics Committee, which might still find him guilty of violating some internal rules — particularly for his nondisclosure of the gifts that the doctor gave him. However, if there is any punishment, it will not be as serious as expulsion, which is the likely path the Senate would have pursued if Menendez had been found guilty in federal court on the corruption charges.
Before the 2015 indictment, Menendez spent more than two years as the committee’s chairman and then ranking Democrat. Most of his positions fall in line with Democratic orthodoxy on foreign policy, but Menendez was a staunch opponent of the Iran nuclear deal and also vehemently opposed the Obama administration’s opening to Cuba.
Menendez is the longest-serving Cuban American in the Senate.