Political Accountability Isn’t Dead Yet

On September 22, when federal prosecutors accused Senator Robert Menendez of taking hundreds of thousands of dollars in bribes, Representative Andy Kim, a fellow New Jersey Democrat, asked one of his neighbors what he thought of the charges. “That’s Jersey,” the man replied.

The neighbor’s shrug spoke volumes about not only a state with a sordid history of political corruption but also a country that seemed to have grown inured to scandal. In nearby New York, George Santos had settled into his Republican House seat despite having been indicted on more than a dozen counts of fraud and having acknowledged that the story he’d used to woo voters was almost entirely fiction. Criminal indictments have done nothing to dent Republican support for Donald Trump, who is currently the front-runner for both the GOP nomination and the presidency next year.

It turns out, however, that the supposedly cynical citizens of New Jersey did care that their senior senator was allegedly on the take. In the days after the indictment was unsealed, multiple polls found that Menendez’s approval rating had plummeted to just 8 percent. New Jersey’s Democratic governor, Phil Murphy, and its other Democratic senator, Cory Booker, both called on Menendez to quit. All but three of the nine Democrats in New Jersey’s House delegation have urged the senator to resign, and one of them is his own son.

Menendez has pleaded not guilty to the charges and rejected calls to resign. A son of Cuban immigrants, he has denounced the case against him as a racially motivated persecution. But his days in the Senate are almost certainly numbered, whether he leaves of his own accord or voters usher him out. Kim has announced that he will challenge Menendez next year, and so has Tammy Murphy, New Jersey’s first lady. Menendez’s trial is scheduled for May, just one month before the primary. Early polls show Menendez barely registering support among Democrats.

“I hit a breaking point,” Kim told me, explaining his decision to run. “I think a lot of people hit a breaking point, where they’re just like, ‘We’re done with this now.’”

Accountability has come more swiftly for Santos. National party leaders had largely protected him—Speaker Kevin McCarthy and his successor, Mike Johnson, both needed Santos’s vote in the GOP’s tight House majority. But a damning report from the bipartisan House Ethics Committee proved to be his undoing: Earlier this month, Santos became just the sixth lawmaker in American history to be expelled from the House.

The government’s case against Menendez could still fall apart; he’s beaten charges of corruption before. But the public can hold its elected officials to a higher standard than a jury would. If the appearance (and, in this case, reappearance) of impropriety can cause voters to lose faith in the system, the events of the past few months might go some way toward restoring it. That both Menendez and Santos have suffered consequences for their alleged misdeeds offers some reassurance to ethics watchdogs who have seen Trump survive scandal after scandal, and indictment after indictment. “You can’t get away with anything. There are still some guardrails,” Noah Bookbinder, the president of Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, told me.

Yet Trump’s enduring impact on political accountability remains an open question. Has he lowered the standards for everyone, or do the laws of political gravity still apply to ethically compromised lawmakers not named Trump? “Donald Trump is a unique animal,” Lisa Gilbert, the executive vice president of the Washington-based nonprofit Public Citizen, told me. “He has built a cultlike following and surrounded himself with people who believe that no matter what he does, he is in the right.” Few politicians could ever hope to build such a buffer.

Trump hasn’t evaded accountability entirely: The ethical norms he shattered while in office likely contributed to his defeat in 2020. And although he’s leading in the polls, one or more convictions next year could weaken his bid and demonstrate that the systems meant to hold American leaders in check function even against politicians who have used their popularity to insulate themselves from culpability. “He is being charged,” Gilbert said. “There are accountability mechanisms that are moving in spite of that apparatus. And to me, that’s a sign that eventually the rule of law will prevail.”

At the same time, the Menendez and Santos examples provide only so much comfort for ethics watchdogs. The allegations against both politicians were particularly egregious. The phrase lining his pockets is usually metaphorical, but in addition to gold bars, the FBI found envelopes of cash in the pockets of suit jackets emblazoned with Menendez’s name in his closet.

The earlier allegations Menendez faced were almost as lurid; prosecutors said he had accepted nearly $1 million in gifts from a Florida ophthalmologist, including private flights and lavish Caribbean vacations, in exchange for helping the doctor secure contracts and visas for his girlfriends. A 2018 trial ended in a hung jury, and the Department of Justice subsequently dropped the case.

Santos was caught lying about virtually his entire life—his religion, where he had gone to school, where he worked—and then was accused of using his campaign coffers as a personal piggy bank, spending the money on Botox and the website OnlyFans.

Some of the charges against Trump, such as falsifying business records and mishandling classified documents, involve more complicated questions of law. “A lot of the Trump scandals that he’s been indicted for may sort of be beyond the grasp of the average voter,” says Tom Jensen, the director of the Democratic firm Public Policy Polling, which conducted one of the surveys finding that Menendez’s approval rating had sunk after the indictment. “Gold bars are not beyond the grasp of the average voter. Voters get gold bars, and when it’s something that’s so easy for voters to understand, you’re a lot more likely to see this sort of precipitous decline.”

Jensen told me that in his 16 years as a pollster, he had seen only two other examples where public support dropped so dramatically after the eruption of scandal. One was Rod Blagojevich, the former Democratic governor of Illinois who was convicted of attempting to sell the Senate seat that Barack Obama vacated when he became president in 2009. The other was John Edwards, who, after running for president as a Democrat in 2008, admitted to having an affair while his wife, Elizabeth, was battling a recurrence of breast cancer. (He would later admit to fathering a child with his mistress, and face charges that he illegally used campaign funds to hide the affair; Edwards was found not guilty on the one count on which the jury reached a verdict.)

The Trump era has revealed an asymmetry in how the parties respond to scandal. Republicans have overlooked or justified all sorts of behavior that would have doomed most other politicians, including multiple allegations of sexual assault (such as those that Trump essentially admitted to in the infamous Access Hollywood video made public in 2016). Although Santos was expelled by a Republican-controlled House, Democrats provided the bulk of the votes to oust him, while a majority of GOP lawmakers voted against expulsion. Democrats were quick to pressure Senator Al Franken to resign in 2018 after several women accused him of touching them inappropriately. (Some Democrats later regretted that they had pushed Franken out so fast.) The party also forced a defiant New York Governor Andrew Cuomo to step down in 2021 amid multiple allegations of misconduct and harassment.

Trump’s gut-it-out strategy seems to have inspired politicians in both parties to resist demands to resign and to bet that the public’s short attention span will allow them to weather just about any controversy. Gone are the days when a scandalized politician would quit at the first sign of embarrassment, as New York Governor Eliot Spitzer did in 2008, less than 48 hours after the revelation that he had patronized high-end prostitutes. Virginia Governor Ralph Northam was able to serve out his full term despite losing the support of virtually the entire Democratic Party in 2019 after photos surfaced of him dressed in racist costumes in a medical-school yearbook. Cuomo defied calls to resign for months, and Santos forced the House to expel him rather than quit. Menendez has similarly rebuffed the many longtime colleagues who have urged him to leave.

Shame may have left politics in the Trump era, but consequences haven’t—at least in the cases of Menendez and Santos. “Maybe these can be first steps,” Bookbinder told me, sounding a note of cautious optimism. “If you say nothing matters, then really nothing will matter. I hope we can go back to the place where people do feel like they owe it to their constituents to behave in an ethical and legal way.”

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