U.S. Senator Robert Menendez (Democrat-New Jersey), a prominent voice on American foreign policy issues concerning Iran, Ukraine, Russia, and Armenia, has become the first U.S. senator to be indicted on criminal charges since 2008.
The U.S. Justice Department announced on April 1 that Menendez has been charged with numerous corruption-related offenses.
Here are five things to know about the charges Menendez faces and what the case could mean for U.S. foreign policy.
What Are The Charges?
A federal grand jury indicted Menendez on charges of improperly using his office to benefit a political donor and friend, Florida eye doctor Salomon Melgen. The senator faces 14 counts of federal corruption charges, including bribery, conspiracy, and making false statements. Melgen has also been charged.
The 68-page indictment accuses Melgen of providing Menendez with luxury vacations, flights, and hotel stays, as well as contributions to Menendez's legal defense fund. The indictment alleges that in return for these favors, Menendez helped with U.S. visa applications for Melgen's foreign girlfriends, intervened in a federal health-care dispute on the doctor’s behalf, and helped protect a contract for a company in which Melgen was an investor.
Menendez has been charged with eight counts of bribery, each of which are punishable by up to 15 years in prison.
What Does Menendez Say About The Charges
Menendez has denied any wrongdoing and pleaded not guilty on April 2. He was released without bail but was ordered to surrender his passport.
Speaking at an April 1 news conference in Newark, New Jersey, he said that "this is not how my career is going to end." He added that he is ready to "fight" the charges.
"I'm outraged that prosecutors at the Justice Department were tricked into starting this investigation three years ago with false allegations by those who have a political motive to silence me. But I will not be silenced -- I am confident [that] at the end of the day, I will be vindicated and they will be exposed," Menendez said.
How Could The Case Impact U.S. Foreign Policy?
While the executive branch of U.S. government takes the lead in directing foreign policy, the U.S. Congress plays an important role in this area, as well. During his time in office, Menendez has served as chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and became the committee’s top-ranking Democrat earlier this year after Republicans captured a Senate majority in an election last November.
Menendez has called on U.S. President Barack Obama to send arms to Ukraine that he says are critical for Kyiv to defend itself against Russian aggression, a step the White House has declined to take thus far.
He has also been a prominent skeptic on nuclear talks with Tehran. He is the lead Democratic sponsor of a bipartisan bill to impose a 60-day review period of any nuclear deal with Iran. Obama has threatened to veto the bill, claiming that it could complicate negotiations. The bill is due to be considered in the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on April 14. The number of U.S. senators supporting the bill is approaching a veto-proof majority of 67.
Menendez is also widely seen as a friend to Armenia. His home state of New Jersey has a significant Armenian-American population, and he introduced legislation in 2009 calling on the Obama administration to recognize the World War I-era mass killings of Armenians as "genocide." He has also questioned U.S. military sales to Azerbaijan, warning of their potential use in Baku’s dispute with Yerevan over the breakaway Nagorno-Karabakh region.
Menendez has agreed to voluntarily step down from his position as the ranking member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. His office said, however, that he will continue to raise his voice on foreign policy matters.
"There will not be a change on his advocacy. It will be business as usual," said Adam Sharon, a spokesman for the senator.
The committee’s chairman, Senator Bob Corker (Republican-Tennessee), said in a statement that he expects Menendez "will continue to play a constructive role" on foreign relations.
Who Will Replace Menendez On The Foreign Relations Committee?
Senator Benjamin Cardin (Democrat-Maryland) will take over as ranking member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, according to the office of Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid (Democrat-Nevada).
Cardin has generally been more supportive of Obama's foreign policy than Menendez, and told Bloomberg on March 30 that he thinks an "effective" nuclear deal with Iran is possible.
Cardin said in an April 1 statement that he appreciated Menendez's role as chairman and ranking member and encouraged everyone to give him the presumption of innocence.
Menendez said on April 1 that he is "not going anywhere." Should he decide to resign his seat in the U.S. Senate, New Jersey’s Republican governor, Chris Christie, would choose a replacement and then schedule a special election to fill the seat.
What Is Next For Menendez?
Menendez appeared in court on April 2 in Newark and pleaded not guilty to the charges.
The legal battle he faces could be lengthy and costly. A legal defense fund he established in 2014 spent more than $762,000 of the $866,000 it raised that year.