The moment that news broke about a possible indictment against Sen. Bob Menendez (D-N.J.) last month, the conspiracy was launched. Weird isn't it, the argument goes, that Menendez, who's criticized the president on Cuba and on the Iran talks, should be indicted now? It found voice on conservative blogs and from Sen. Ted Cruz; in the wake of the actual release of the indictment Wednesday, it spread to Fox News and the Washington Examiner and Powerline (which was taking a break from its Harry Reid conspiracy theories).
As is so often the case with conspiracy theories, the idea that President Obama's administration decided to get Menendez indicted to block his political opposition doesn't really make any sense.
The indictment chronicles a lot of questionable events. Over the course of the 68-page indictment, the government makes its case against Menendez. He's charged with 14 counts, eight of them bribery. (There's also "honest services fraud," which is sort of like a general corruption charge, and a violation of the Travel Act, meaning that some of the alleged misdeeds involved crossing state or national borders.) The case centers on Menendez's efforts to smooth things over for a donor, Saloman Melgen of Florida. Things like: getting Melgen's girlfriends (three, from Brazil, the Dominican Republic, and Ukraine) visas to enter the country, helping him secure a contract for port security in the Dominican, and working to fix an investigation by Medicare into alleged overbilling by millions of dollars. Meanwhile, Melgen was making huge political contributions to Menendez and his allies (and his legal fund), setting up hotel stays tailored to Menendez's requests, and flying the senator all over North America.
Proving the case, as we wrote last month, will be tricky, since it depends on proving that Menendez took all of those actions on Melgen's behalf independent of the generosity of the doctor. But the charges are substantive.
Oh, and as the Daily Beast's Olivia Nuzzi noted, Menendez's actions involved trying to leverage a member of Obama's cabinet. The indictment is not exactly flattering to the administration.
The case has been years in the making. In his news conference responding to the indictment Wednesday night, Menendez complained about the government being "tricked into starting this investigation three years ago with false allegations by those who have a political motive to silence me." Those allegations came from the conservative Daily Caller, which reported testimony from women saying that they'd been hired as prostitutes for Menendez during a visit to the Dominican Republic. The women later recanted.
The point is this: The investigation into Menendez began in 2012, not recently. In January 2013, the FBI searched Melgen's house in Florida -- months before Iran and the group of countries referred to as P5+1 began discussing any deal over Iran's nuclear program and well before the announcement late last year that Obama planned to ease sanctions against Cuba. Menendez's opposition to both of those moves is cited as the supposed rationale for the indictment.
Menendez is hardly alone in criticizing the president. Yes, Menendez was the ranking member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, a position of some power in the Senate. And yes, that meant that his voice was louder than others in criticizing the possible deal with Iran or the change in our relationship with Cuba.
But the Iran sanctions in particular are widely opposed on Capitol Hill. Over 100 Democrats signed a letter criticizing a deal. In January, Menendez was joined by several colleagues in signing another letter pressuring Obama on his outreach to the country. Among the other signers? Sen. Chuck Schumer of New York, who since has suffered the punishment of being handed eventual leadership of his party's caucus.
There's no hypocrisy in this week's legal moves. Also on Wednesday, a U.S. attorney declined to charge IRS executive Lois Lerner with contempt of Congress for invoking the Fifth Amendment in testimony before the House Oversight committee. For critics of the president, this provided a stark example of Obama's use of the justice system for politics. He protects his allies but punishes his foes.
Except that Lerner is hardly an ally. The whole point of the House investigation into the IRS' targeting of conservative nonprofit applicants prior to the 2012 race is that Republicans haven't been able to show a link between Lerner and Obama. And on this charge, a politically motivated Obama would probably be happy to see Lerner charged, since it doesn't mean much for the substance of the IRS investigation and it would allow him to point to another point of accountability.
Unfortunately for political Obama, the U.S. attorney -- who also helped prosecute former Illinois representative Jesse Jackson Jr., mind you -- decided that the nuanced legal case for how and when it was appropriate for Lerner to plead the Fifth wasn't worth pursuing.
Why now? Why not? The simplest version of the conspiracy theory is this: Why now? Why not hold the indictment until later this year or do it months ago? Isn't the fact that it overlaps with the end of Iran negotiations suspicious?
Well, it's certainly coincidental. It seems as though the Iran negotiations will wrap up today -- but they were supposed to have wrapped up multiple times over the past few months. It's been a start-and-stop process from the beginning, one in which you'd be hard-pressed to predict an end point. And the question can just as easily be posed in reverse. If Obama was worried about Menendez's opposition to Cuba and Iran, why not drop the hammer last year, when the Cuba announcement came out? Why not do it right after that letter Menendez sent in January? Why not at any point, ever?
Distilled, the conspiracy theory has nothing to do with Menendez and everything to do with Obama. Theorists start from the principle that Obama is wielding the power of government for his own political good, and tack everything onto that. If you look at the situation from the objective position, you see a long pattern of questionable behavior from a politician from the great state of New Jersey. And as William of Ockham would argue, that's probably the better way to look at it.