Trump Hasn’t Killed Political Accountability

On September 22, when federal prosecutors accused Sen. Robert Menendez of accepting hundreds of thousands of dollars in bribes, Rep. Andy Kim, another New Jersey Democrat, asked one of his neighbors what he thought of the accusations. “It’s Jersey,” the man replied.

The neighbor's shrug speaks volumes not only about a state with a sordid past of political corruption, but also about a country that seems to have become accustomed to scandal. In neighboring New York City, George Santos had settled into his Republican seat in the House of Representatives, despite being indicted on more than a dozen counts of fraud and admitting that the story he had used to woo voters was almost entirely fiction. The criminal charges have done nothing to dent Republican support for Donald Trump, who is currently the front-runner for both the Republican Party nomination and the presidency next year.

It turns out, however, that the supposedly cynical citizens of New Jersey actually cared that their oldest senator was allegedly about to be taken. In the days following the charge was unsealed, several polls found that Menendez's approval rating had dropped to just 8 percent. New Jersey's Democratic governor, Phil Murphy, and his other Democratic senator, Cory Booker, have both called on Menendez to resign. All but three Democrats in New Jersey's legislative delegation have urged the senator to resign, and one of them is his own son.

Menendez has pleaded not guilty to the charges against him and has rejected calls for him to resign. Son of Cuban immigrants, he denounced the case against him as racist persecution. But his days in the Senate are almost certainly numbered, whether he leaves on his own or voters expel him. Kim announced he would challenge Menendez next year, as did Tammy Murphy, the first lady of New Jersey. Menendez's trial is scheduled for May, just one month before the primaries. Early polls show that Menendez barely registers Democratic support.

“I reached a breaking point,” Kim told me, explaining her decision to run. “I think a lot of people have reached a breaking point, where they're just like, 'We're done with this now.'”

Responsibility came quicker for Santos. National party leaders had largely protected him: Speaker Kevin McCarthy and his successor, Mike Johnson, both needed Santos' vote in the Republican Party's tight majority in the House. But a damning report from the bipartisan House Ethics Committee proved to be his undoing: Earlier this month, Santos became the sixth lawmaker in American history to be expelled from the House.

The government's case against Menendez could still collapse; he has already been accused of corruption. But the public can demand higher standards from its elected officials than a jury would. While the appearance (and, in this case, re-occurrence) of irregularities can cause voters to lose confidence in the system, the events of recent months could go some way to restoring it. The fact that Menendez and Santos faced consequences for their alleged misdeeds goes some way to reassuring ethics watchdogs who have watched Trump survive scandal after scandal and indictment after indictment. “You can’t escape anything. There are still some guardrails,” Noah Bookbinder, president of Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, told me.

Yet Trump's lasting 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, non-Trump lawmakers? “Donald Trump is a unique animal,” Lisa Gilbert, executive vice president of Public Citizen, a Washington-based nonprofit, told me. “He’s built a cult and surrounded himself with people who believe that whatever he does, he’s right.” Few politicians could hope to create such a buffer.

Trump hasn't completely evaded his responsibilities: the ethical standards he broke during his term likely contributed to his defeat in 2020. And although he leads in the polls, one or more convictions next year could weaken his candidacy and demonstrate that the systems supposed to hold up. Failed American leaders even work against politicians who have used their popularity to protect themselves from guilt. “He’s indicted,” Gilbert said. “There are accountability mechanisms that evolve despite this device. And for me, this is a sign that the rule of law will ultimately prevail.”

At the same time, the examples of Menendez and Santos provide only limited comfort to ethics watchdogs. The allegations against the two politicians were particularly egregious. The phrase fill your 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 previous allegations Menendez faced were almost as sinister; prosecutors said he had accepted nearly $1 million in gifts from a Florida ophthalmologist, including private flights and lavish Caribbean vacations, in exchange for the doctor's help securing contracts and visas for his girlfriends . A 2018 trial ended in a hung jury, and the Justice Department later abandoned the case.

Santos was caught lying about virtually his entire life – his religion, where he went to school, where he worked – and was later accused of using his campaign coffers as a personal piggy bank, spending that money for Botox and the OnlyFans website.

Some of the charges against Trump, such as falsifying business records and mishandling classified documents, involve more complex questions of law. “A lot of the Trump scandals he's been indicted for might be beyond the reach of the average voter,” says Tom Jensen, director of the Democratic firm Public Policy Polling, which has conducted surveys on public policy. one of the investigations finding that Menendez's popularity dropped after the indictment. “Gold bars are not beyond the reach of the average voter. Voters are given gold bars, and when it's something that's so easy for voters to understand, you're much more likely to see that kind 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 a scandal broke. One of them was Rod Blagojevich, the former Democratic governor of Illinois. sentenced for trying to sell the Senate seat vacated by Barack Obama when he became president in 2009. The other was John Edwards, who, after running for president as a Democrat in 2008, admitted having an affair while his wife, Elizabeth, was battling a recurrence of breast cancer. (He later admitted to fathering a child with his mistress and was accused of illegally using campaign funds to conceal the affair; Edwards was found not guilty of the only charge on which the jury reached a conclusion. verdict.)

The Trump era has exposed an asymmetry in how 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 (like those 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 Republican lawmakers voted against expulsion. Democrats were quick to pressure Sen. Al Franken to resign in 2018 after several women accused him of touching them inappropriately. (Some Democrats later regretted (that they had ousted Franken so quickly.) The party also forced a New York governor, Andrew Cuomo, to step down. resign in 2021 amid multiple allegations of misconduct and harassment.

Trump's evisceration strategy appears to have inspired politicians in both parties to resist calls for resignation and to bet that the public's short attention span will allow them to weather any controversy. Gone are the days when a scandalized politician would resign at the first sign of embarrassment, like New York Governor Eliot Spitzer. did in 2008, less than 48 hours after it was revealed that he had frequented high-end prostitutes. Virginia Governor Ralph Northam was able to fulfill his mandate despite losing the support of virtually the entire Democratic Party in 2019 after photos of him dressed in racist costumes surfaced in a medical school yearbook. Cuomo defied calls to resign for months, and Santos forced the House to expel him rather than resign. Menendez also pushed back against the many longtime colleagues who urged him to leave.

Shame may have disappeared from politics in the Trump era, but not the consequences, at least in the cases of Menendez and Santos. “Maybe this can be a first step,” Bookbinder told me, showing cautious optimism. “If you say nothing matters, then nothing will matter. I hope we can get back to the point where people feel they owe it to their constituents to behave ethically and legally.

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