Robert Menendez Is the Last Hawk on the Left
… But don’t tell him that.
On Nov. 16, 2017, U.S. Sen. Robert Menendez stood outside a Newark, New Jersey, courthouse and thanked his lawyers, his children, and his Senate colleagues Cory Booker and Lindsey Graham for sticking by him. He endured, and ultimately prevailed, in a federal bribery trial during which he was accused of benefiting from around $1 million in gifts and political donations from a wealthy eye doctor in exchange for political favors.
“Today is resurrection day,” he said, punctuating his remarks with tears, just minutes after a hung jury prompted a federal judge to declare a mistrial. The Justice Department subsequently dropped all charges against Menendez.
Since his trial, the 67-year-old Cuban American politician has survived a bipartisan rebuke from the Senate Ethics Committee and sailed through his 2018 reelection, culminating in his return this year to the chairmanship of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, a powerful perch that has given him extraordinary influence to shape American foreign policy
Today, Menendez’s political rebirth is complete, and now he aims to revive a Senate that he feels has played too passive a role in foreign policy.
In his first months as chairman this year after Democrats narrowly regained control of the Senate, Menendez has made clear he intends to stamp Congress’s mark, and his own personal imprint, across a broad range of U.S. foreign-policy priorities. Having endured intense scrutiny from federal prosecutors, Menendez is now looking to dramatically increase oversight of federal policymakers.
“I have always believed the Senate is a separate, co-equal branch of government in the broad sense and needs to act as such as part of our institutional checks and balances, regardless of who sits in the White House,” Menendez told Foreign Policy in an interview. “I’ve always acted that way.”
In recent weeks, Menendez has pressed for a more prominent congressional role in reviewing President Joe Biden’s decision to withdraw from Afghanistan and shaping U.S. policy there after American troops depart. He has championed a major bipartisan bill that would place Congress at the center of China policy and require a steady diet of administration reports to lawmakers justifying its every move. He also recently joined forces with Sen. Graham, a Republican, to press the White House to demand more concessions from Tehran before reentering the Iran nuclear deal, a bid that supporters of the pact fear will hinder prospects for a deal.
Last month, Menendez introduced an amendment to the China bill that would grant his committee sweeping authority to review any agreement a president makes with a foreign government. Menendez sees that as part of restoring Congress to its proper oversight role, some legal experts laud it as one of the most significant improvements in transparency of U.S. international agreements in decades, and critics fear it’s intended to increase his power at the expense of the White House, providing a backdoor way to impede ongoing negotiations over the Iran nuclear deal. His office steadfastly denies it has anything to do with Iran.
“It’s like putting Bob Menendez at the negotiating table for any executive agreement the administration is trying to make,” said one Democratic congressional aide, speaking on condition of anonymity. “Congress has a role to play, but this is just something else entirely.”
Menendez’s bid for greater influence has struck a chord with many lawmakers on both sides of the aisle who are hungry to claw back Congress’s historical role in U.S. foreign policy, which successive administrations have slowly eroded with passive congressional support. But some of Menendez’s Democratic colleagues are worried he could block some of Biden’s foreign-policy priorities, whether rejoining the Iran deal or reengaging with Cuba, that are popular among the party’s progressive wing.
“Menendez has been playing games with Graham to undermine Biden’s policies, and this is a problem,” the Democratic aide added. “His sense of reestablishing bipartisan consensus is 20 years out of date. It does not reflect where his party is and where the Republican Party is.”
Menendez, a Cuban American who shares with Republicans an unwavering commitment to Israel and anti-Castro Cuba policies, has at times been at odds with the administration and drawn suspicion from some corners of the increasingly prominent progressive wing of the Democratic Party.
“Many of his positions are simply out of step with today’s Democratic Party,” Stephen Miles, the executive director of Win Without War, said in an interview. “When you have been the most hawkish member on Iran in a party that almost unanimously otherwise supports diplomacy, it stands out, and it’s a real problem.”
But to his supporters—including prominent progressive lawmakers on the committee—Menendez is viewed as an independent centrist Democrat, who has proved his value to the party with his forceful assertion of congressional prerogatives and recruitment of a savvy staff to implement them. They see him as a strong promoter of human rights globally and value his ability to tear into government witnesses stonewalling Congress during Senate hearings, a skill he applied with fervor during the Trump administration.
Several administration officials and congressional aides credit Menendez with playing a key role in convincing Biden to formally recognize the mass killing of Armenians by the Ottoman Empire over a century ago as a genocide—a declaration that drew as much praise from human rights groups as it did bitter anger from NATO ally Turkey. They also regard Menendez as a staunch institutionalist, hungry to reverse Congress’s slowly diminishing role in foreign policy—even if it means picking battles with a Democratic administration.
“Bob Menendez is one of the few members of the Senate who is willing to stand up to any administration, be it Republican or Democrat, to assert Congress’s coequal role in making foreign policy,” said Sen. Chris Murphy, a progressive Democrat on the foreign affairs panel. “Bob has guts, everybody knows it. And if you want to put Congress back in a relative position [of strength] on foreign policy, then Menendez is your guy.”
Some inside the Biden administration privately credit Menendez for holding their own bosses to account on Democratic campaign promises, including lifting caps imposed under former President Donald Trump on admitting refugees into the United States and ramping up pressure on autocratic regimes abroad.
“We absolutely want Sen. Menendez in our corner, because he will rip apart a witness at a hearing if he doesn’t think they’re standing up for human rights, democracy, rule of law,” said one U.S. diplomatic official, speaking on condition of anonymity. “He’s got that tough New Jersey style that makes people not want to cross him.”
That same trait, however, makes other Democratic policymakers privately worry Menendez will hold key priorities hostage, including through his power over the scheduling of foreign-policy nominations, if his priorities are not met. In an early sign of the deference shown to Menendez, a critic of U.S. engagement with the Cuban government, the Biden administration backtracked on a campaign pledge to restore remittances and U.S. travel to Cuba and to reengage politically with Havana.
“A Cuba policy shift or additional steps is currently not among the president’s top foreign-policy priorities,” said Jen Psaki, the White House press spokesperson, last month.
Menendez, for his part, bristles at being called a hawk.
“I guess when I voted against the war in Iraq, and in the minority, I guess that was hawkish,” he said. “I guess when I’m a big supporter of the Peace Corps financially, and supportive of diplomacy in many parts of the world, including Africa, I’m being a hawk.”
“This hawk and dove thing doesn’t quite play very well with me.”
The second coming of Robert Menendez—he previously served as chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee from 2013 to 2015—is one of Washington’s most improbable comeback stories. Just over six years ago, Menendez’s political reputation was badly tarnished by a federal investigation into allegations that he received valuable gifts from a close friend and donor, the Palm Beach ophthalmologist Salomon Melgen, in exchange for help. He ultimately was indicted on multiple counts of bribery, accused of accepting free flights on Melgen’s private jets, paid vacations to a luxury hotel in Paris and a villa in an exclusive Dominican resort, expensive meals, and golf outings.
Menendez and his supporters maintain that he was wrongfully targeted and insist the charges were unjust. “No one close to him saw any validity in the allegations, and his staff and colleagues stood with him, knowing a jury would see the same,” said Jodi Herman, a former longtime Menendez staffer now at the National Endowment for Democracy.
Menendez’s critics say his political survival says as much about the transactional culture in Washington, where politicians live or die on their ability to attract money from deep-pocketed campaign donors, as it does about his own political savvy and endurance.
The case ended in mistrial in November 2017, with most of the jurors prepared to acquit, and the Department of Justice dismissed all charges and declined to retry it. Still, following the mistrial, Menendez was “severely admonished” by a bipartisan Senate Committee on Ethics in a letter that was signed by Democratic Sens. Chris Coons and Jeanne Shaheen, as well as Republican Sen. James Risch, among others. All three currently serve on the Foreign Relations Committee.
Menendez said that while he disagreed with his colleagues’ conclusions, he understands “they had a role to play” and that they have all since come together to “meet the goal of creating a more prosperous, safer, secure world.” He never doubted he would stay in Congress, even when the outcome seemed uncertain. “I knew I would ultimately be exonerated and as such I would return and take my role,” he said. “I believed that I had done nothing that was wrong, certainly nothing criminally wrong.”
Menendez’s Senate colleagues, even his critics, have moved on and found ways to work with the New Jersey senator. At the pinnacle of his reborn political power, Menendez is finding everyone has something nice to say about him, including Shaheen, who described him in a statement to Foreign Policy as “a great partner in the Senate” and “a determined leader of the committee.”
“It’s all behind him,” Murphy said. “And I think that we were all very eager and hopeful during that time that he’d get back to being ranking member and chairman,” he added. “Especially during the Trump years, having Bob Menendez on that committee to hold Trump administration officials’ feet to the fire was critical.”
Other Democratic staffers and progressives continue to bridle at Menendez’s enduring standing in a party that is seeking to distinguish itself from the transactional nature of U.S. foreign policy under Trump. But almost all of his critics spoke on condition of anonymity, citing fear of retaliation from Menendez, who they say has a reputation for holding grudges and settling scores.
“It’s embarrassing for the Democrats that he continues to wield this position of power,” said one progressive foreign-policy expert, who insisted on anonymity because the expert works with Menendez and his staff.
Menendez’s path to power in Washington began in the 1970s, in Union City, New Jersey, a New York suburb once known as “Little Havana on the Hudson.” Menendez was just 20 when he served a stint in the mayor’s office and was elected to the Board of Education for his hometown.
His father, a carpenter, and his mother, a seamstress, both immigrated to the United States from Cuba and moved into a tenement in Union City, where Menendez grew up. He later credited his mother and a high school teacher with transforming his life and setting the stage for his eventual career. He recalled his mother did not speak English well, but she made him read her his homework each night. And his teacher, Gail Harper, didn’t let one of her shy and introverted students off the hook for public speaking in class.
From the Board of Education, Menendez steadily climbed through the ranks of local and New Jersey state politics. He would go on to serve as Union City’s mayor from 1986 to 1992, before heading off to Washington in 1993, where he served in the House of Representatives for New Jersey’s 13th District.
Even from his early days in the House, he took a keen interest in foreign policy. Herman, who served as an aide to Menendez in both the House and Senate, recalled helping him craft legislation on Iran in 1998—years before Menendez became a leading figure in the political drama over President Barack Obama’s efforts to negotiate a landmark nuclear deal with Iran. In 2006, he was appointed to fill a vacancy in the Senate, a seat that—despite the trial—he’s never lost or relinquished.
There, he carved out a reputation as an independent operator, a stalwart Democrat on a range of issues including human rights and refugee protections. He also became a champion for women’s rights and abortion access, efforts to combat systemic racism, and LBGTQ rights. For a lawmaker with a later reputation as a hawk, his early record tells a more complex story. He backed legislation in the immediate aftermath of the 9/11 terrorist attacks to authorize military force against al Qaeda in Afghanistan, the legal basis for an amorphous collection of international military campaigns still in use today. But he was one of a minority of lawmakers who opposed President George W. Bush’s decision to invade Iraq in 2003. Today he has joined a growing chorus of lawmakers fighting to repeal and replace those authorizations for use of military force and rein in the president’s war powers authorities.
“He’s always demonstrated independence,” said former Sen. Bob Corker, who served for years with Menendez as the senior Republican on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. “He’s more of a hawk on certain issues than typically Democratic administrations are, which … does cause him in many cases to be more aligned with Republicans on certain issues.”
From his perch on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Menendez has cultivated a cadre of fiercely loyal staffers who conduct the grunt work of congressional oversight on the United States’ massive, multibillion-dollar foreign-policy machinery. Several former staffers described Menendez as a tough but fair manager who demands a lot out of them. In return, they have a boss who watches their back and supports them if they look for new career moves—something that can be a rarity in the Machiavellian world of Capitol Hill.
During the Trump era, Menendez became one of the most vocal critics on Capitol Hill of the Trump administration’s widespread mismanagement of the State Department and decimation of the diplomatic corps, launching committee investigations into a slew of mismanagement allegations and former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s alleged use of State Department resources for personal and political gain.
If Menendez can be a relentless cross-examiner in committee hearings, his former staffers say he has a softer side behind the scenes. “He’s a nice person, and people really like working for him. It’s definitely in contrast to the disposition he can take in a committee hearing when he is engaged in oversight,” Herman said. Former aides said Menendez always called staffers on their birthday to sing them “Happy Birthday” and talk about their plans for the upcoming year. And his singing skills? They’re actually “really good,” said another former staffer, who spoke about working for Menendez on condition of anonymity.
In recent years, Menendez has had a strained, if sometimes productive, relationship with Risch, the foreign relations committee chair during the second half of the Trump administration and the current ranking member—and one of the signatories of Menendez’s admonishment after his bribery trial.
Menendez and Risch co-sponsored the China bill, known as the Strategic Competition Act, which seeks to put Congress’s imprint on China policy. In many ways, the bill mirrors both the Trump and Biden administration’s policies by highlighting human rights and democracy promotion, investing at home to strengthen American competitiveness, and cultivating allies to check China’s influence. It also calls for more military and diplomatic spending.
But the act would also limit the Biden administration’s flexibility by inserting Congress into the China file, promoting an overtly confrontational approach to Beijing. For instance, the bill would require every federal agency designate a senior official to coordinate its efforts to compete with China, and it would appropriate $300 million a year from fiscal 2022 to 2026 for a Countering Chinese Influence Fund. It would also require reports on a range of Chinese activities, including its efforts to bolster its influence at the United Nations and other international organizations.
Despite the China bill’s success in the Senate, including support from progressive lawmakers, it has drawn criticism from some progressive advocacy groups that fault its call for a military, diplomatic, and intelligence buildup and say it continues what they see as a troubling trend among mainstream Democrats and Republicans of demonizing China—a strategy that they believe has played a factor in fueling anti-Asian bias and violence in the United States.
“This is going to feed racism and racial profiling of the kind that should be familiar to us from the war on terror and the Cold War,” said Tobita Chow, the director of Justice Is Global, a Chicago-based grassroots organization that promotes racial and income equality. “If this passes and gets the support from the White House, it will show that when U.S. officials talk about strategic competition, they are really talking about containment.”
Risch’s tenure also helped shape Menendez’s current role as the Democrats’ bulldog in the Senate. Unlike Corker, the former committee chairman who sometimes found himself at odds with Trump—leading to blistering rebukes from the president on Twitter—Risch never instigated or endured public spats with the former president. Republicans supported his efforts to sort out differences with the administration behind the scenes. Democrats on the committee were irked by his reluctance to hold more frequent, high-profile committee hearings on controversial foreign-policy topics, including Russia and the Trump administration’s handling of State Department management.
Risch also broke with the Senate’s bipartisan protocol to push through White House initiatives, despite Democrats’ efforts to block them. In July 2019, he breached that traditional understanding and advanced a vote on a bill about Saudi Arabia following the 2018 murder of the Saudi Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi. The maneuver effectively killed off an effort led by Menendez to put forward a tougher bill that would have imposed sanctions on Khashoggi’s murderers, halted some U.S. arms sales to Riyadh, and prohibited U.S. refueling of Saudi jets responsible for civilian deaths during the kingdom’s war against Houthi rebels in neighboring Yemen. Risch’s supporters insist the bill he championed was more realistic and stood a better chance of actually being signed into law by Trump.
“The Saudi bill was a real disappointment,” Murphy said. “We had the votes to put a really good bipartisan bill on the floor, and the chairman chose to shut down the committee and not allow it to move to the floor.”
Less than a year later, Risch pushed ahead with the nomination of Michael Pack, a controversial Trump nominee to lead the U.S. Agency for Global Media, over Menendez’s objections. When Risch proceeded with the vote, an enraged Menendez brought a staffer armed with an iPhone set to video record the session, since Republicans would only agree to livestream the audio of the hearing. The stunt drew eyerolls from Republicans, who were eager to act on his nomination, which had been stalled for two years. From Democrats, it drew a sigh of relief.
“Outside of Menendez … Democrats don’t really have a bulldog” on the committee, one congressional aide said, speaking on condition of anonymity. “Under Trump, that was needed.”
In the grand scheme of the Trump era of Washington, it was hardly a blip on the radar. But in the long history of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, it was an unusually bitter display of partisan rancor.
Risch, in an email statement to Foreign Policy, downplayed any tensions with Menendez. “Of course we don’t agree on everything, and we try to reconcile our differences whenever we can,” he said. “The best example of that is the work we did on the Strategic Competition Act over the past few months, though there are many others,” including on Latin America and Africa, that the “media and general public don’t pay great attention to … but this is certainly illustrative of the tradition of bipartisan cooperation on our committee.”
Daniel Vajdich, a former Republican aide on the committee who advised several Republican presidential campaigns on national security, said the new era of hyperpartisanship in Washington is seeping into the committee, even despite some members’ best efforts.
When Biden chaired the committee in the 2000s, Vajdich noted, he forged relatively warm relationships with his Republican counterparts, including Sens. Richard Lugar and Jesse Helms, despite the massive differences in their politics. There may not be room for that in today’s Senate, with sharper battle lines drawn and social media wars between opposing lawmakers playing out in public in real time.
“It has unfortunately affected the committee a lot in that this partisanship has seeped into U.S. foreign affairs and the committee. It’s not as partisan as, say, the Judiciary Committee, but it’s not as bipartisan as it once was, to say the least,” Vajdich said. “The interpersonal relationships are just not what they were.”
If Menendez doesn’t see eye to eye with progressive Democrats on every foreign-policy matter, he has a lot more in common with Biden—and he has a long-standing relationship with the new president from Biden’s time in the Senate and as vice president.
In late August 2013, Menendez got a phone call from the White House. Obama was about to make one of the riskiest foreign-policy gambles of his presidency—a strike on Syria—and he needed to enlist Menendez’s help to do it. It was no secret in Washington that Obama and Menendez, an early backer of Hillary Clinton and her presidential ambitions when both she and Obama ran in 2008, had a tense relationship. But Obama needed the new chairman’s help to convince Congress to back his plan to attack Syria in response to its use of chemical weapons.
Menendez rushed members of the committee back to Washington from August recess for a vote on authorizing Obama to use military force against Syria. Biden became a lead White House point man in dealings with Menendez and the Senate. The effort ended in failure for the Obama administration—the abdication of Obama’s famous “red line” became a defining feature of his foreign-policy legacy—but it became a seminal moment for the role of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee in authorizing the use of military force, and for Biden’s role as interlocutor with Menendez.
“When Obama was president, they deployed either one of two people when they needed Menendez. One was Denis McDonough,” Herman said, referring to Obama’s White House chief of staff and now Biden’s Department of Veterans Affairs secretary. “And the other was Joe Biden. Those were the two people that they would have call him if they needed something from him.”
Biden, the first U.S. president since James Buchanan in 1857 to have chaired the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, shares Menendez’s belief in the Senate’s role in crafting foreign policy, as well as the value of reaching across the aisle. Herman said that Biden’s decades in the Senate, including holding the gavel of the foreign affairs committee, indicates he won’t bristle at Menendez’s efforts to reassert Congress’s role.
“Biden is a creature of the Senate. He is a legislator at heart. He understands the process, and I think he values the role that Congress and particularly the Senate plays in foreign policy,” she said. “He’s not offended by Congress’s efforts to assert its jurisdiction and hold hearings.”
Menendez has long prized bipartisan outcomes in the committee, a tendency that will only enhance his influence at a time when the Senate is so narrowly split, Corker said. “There is still, I think, a lot of bipartisan consensus on how to approach the bigger issues we have in foreign policy,” he said. “If you want to be productive in the Senate, obviously it’s got to be bipartisan.” Otherwise, “you’re wasting your time promoting ‘messaging bills.’”
Despite policy differences brewing in the background, Biden’s top national security advisors haven’t even hinted at any public criticism of Menendez, whose role in scheduling confirmation hearings is vital to Biden’s efforts to fill scores of vital empty national security and foreign-policy slots. And Biden has also recruited into his administration a host of former Menendez staffers to the State Department, Defense Department, and U.S. Agency for International Development.
“Chairman Menendez is a vital partner,” National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan said in a statement. “But even more than that, he’s a sounding board, a source of advice, and a leading voice on the most important national security issues of our time. My team and I are making it a personal priority to reach out and engage regularly with him and his team, and we will continue to do so.”
U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken “is grateful to have in Chairman Menendez a close partner, a champion for America’s values and interests, and an ally when it comes to the resources we need to pursue a foreign policy that delivers for the American people,” State Department spokesperson Ned Price said in a statement.
Colum Lynch is a senior staff writer at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @columlynch
Robbie Gramer is a diplomacy and national security reporter at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @RobbieGramer