For months, Democrats have alluded to but largely danced around the question of whether President Trump might be compromised by Russia. On Thursday, Sen. Robert Menendez (D-N.J.) decided it was time to stop dancing so much.
Menendez’s lengthy speech combines the many revelations in recent months that he says raise valid suspicions about Trump’s true motivations. And he says he is increasingly thinking Trump is not just an unwitting tool of the Russians but rather someone who “knows exactly what’s going on.”
“The American people deserve to know who they elected to be their president,” he says. “They deserve to know if he is in fact putting American interests first. And they deserve to know if Donald Trump is an agent of the Russian Federation.”
Menendez points to a judge’s ruling Wednesday that former Trump campaign chairman Paul Manafort lied about his contacts with a Russian associate with alleged ties to Russian intelligence. (“Did Manafort determine that lying to prosecutors was a better alternative to telling the truth?”) He notes Donald Trump Jr. reportedly saying in 2008 that the Trumps benefited from Russian funding. (Trump Jr. reportedly said: “We see a lot of money pouring in from Russia.”) And he itemizes the many Trump positions and comments that seem to align with Kremlin policies and talking points, including on NATO, Crimea, Afghanistan and the European Union.
“I would challenge anyone to find one person — one person in the State Department, the Defense Department, the National Security Council — who believes these statements and would have put them in the president’s ear,” Menendez says. “So who does he get these ideas from? I can think of only one person: his good friend Vladimir Putin.”
Menendez also points to his knowledge of the New York and New Jersey real estate markets and strongly implies Trump might have obtained foreign funding via illicit means once U.S. banks stopped lending to him. A Washington Post report last year detailed Trump spending $400 million in cash in the nine years before he became president, after previously calling himself the “King of Debt.”
“After a string of bankruptcies and racking up debt for years, the Trump Organization suddenly began making a spate of large, unexplainable cash purchases — totaling $400 million over nine years,” Menendez says. “Giant, mysterious, inexplicable cash transactions are the hallmark of money laundering.”
At the end of the speech, Menendez challenges his Republican colleagues to join in getting to the bottom of this question, warning them about what might happen if what he’s suggesting is borne out.
“For should the facts confirm our greatest fears to be true, I ask my colleagues to consider what the history books will say about those who knew the president of the United States was compromised by a foreign power and yet still did nothing.”
Democrats’ rhetoric on this has evolved over the past several months. After Trump’s meeting with Putin in Helsinki last summer, leaders suggested it was a newly legitimate question to ask whether Trump might be compromised. After it was reported that the FBI launched a counterintelligence investigation that sought to answer whether Trump was compromised by Russia, they became a bit bolder. The top Democrat on the Senate Intelligence Committee, Mark R. Warner (Va.), called it “the defining question of our investigation,” as well as that of special counsel Robert S. Mueller III.
But never before has a Democratic senator been so forceful or laid out the case in such detail, and it suggests an increasing boldness on a topic that even Democrats once considered unthinkable and politically dicey.