BEDFORD, N.H.–A Democratic senator is hit with corruption charges. A Republican governor stands ready to replace the senator if he resigns. On paper, it's easy to imagine the troubles of New Jersey Senator Robert Menendez setting up a partisan power struggle.
That's not how the Menendez story is playing out. On Friday afternoon, after CNN broke the news that the Department of Justice was preparing a case against Menendez, conservatives openly asked if this had anything to do with the debate over Iran. Menendez, the ranking member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, was wrangling Democrats for a sanctions bill that the White House had threatened to veto.
Just days before the leak, Menendez was onstage at the AIPAC conference, winning ovation after ovation. "I am not intimidated by anyone," said Menendez. Now, to many conservatives, it seemed as though someone was trying to intimidate him. Bret Stephens, the Pulitzer-winning Wall Street Journal columnist, reacted quickly and succinctly.
In conservative media, plenty of pundits have repeated that sentiment. How convenient was it that the key Democrat challenging the administration on Iran, a tough legislator in the final stages of getting votes for his bill, was hit with credibility-sinking charges. The question answered itself. The Obama administration, wrote Lee Smith in Tablet, "took a page from Michael Corleone’s handbook." In Iowa this past weekend, Texas Senator Ted Cruz openly speculated about a DOJ hit on Menendez.
"The timing is curious," he told reporters. The charges raised "suggestions to other Democrats if you dare part from [the] Obama White House that criminal prosecutions will be used potentially as a weapon against you as well."
After a Monday morning speech in New Hampshire, South Carolina Senator Lindsey Graham told Bloomberg Politics that the Menendez allegations did not sit right with him.
"All I can say is, they were leaked," Graham said. "He wasn't actually charged officially. They leaked the fact that he may be charged, is gonna be charged. I hate it when that happens for anybody. I like Bob. Like everybody else, he's innocent until proven guilty. He's been a champion on the Iranian nuclear issue. It just doesn't smell right."
Asked if he thought there was political pressure on the DOJ to embarrass Menendez, Graham said he didn't know. "I just know that leaking a potential indictment now–leaking it all, he doesn't deserve that," he said. "No American deserves that. Reading in the paper that you're going to be indicted, that's not how the system works. I'm just disgusted with the whole process."
Reached Monday morning, the Justice Department declined to comment.
Ben Brody contributed to this report.