Bob Menendez Pressures White House on Ukraine as Charges Loom
With his political future in question, the senator from New Jersey isn’t backing down on criticizing the administration's handling of the crisis in Ukraine.
Potential federal corruption charges aren't stopping the administration's biggest Democratic foreign policy critic in Congress from speaking his mind about the president's reaction to Russian aggression in Ukraine.
"If you violate and upend the international order, there will be consequences. And we have to mean it when we say it," Sen. Bob Menendez, the ranking Democrat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said during a Center for Strategic and International Studies event on Russia on Monday, referring to President Obama's standard admonitions of "costs" for Russia. "There should be no ambiguity about either our resolve or what actions we would consider."
The Department of Justice is preparing to charge Menendez with corruption for trading political influence for favors from a Florida-based top donor and friend, CNN reported Friday. The New Jersey lawmaker's office has denied any wrongdoing.
When the allegations came out, some wondered whether Menendez would step down from his post on the committee under pressure from leadership, or resign altogether. But the senator quickly dispelled the notion. "I fight for [important] issues, and the people of our country every single day." Menendez said. "That's who I am, and I'm not going anywhere."
Menendez appears ready to wield his considerable power as one of the Senate's most powerful Democrats before criminal charges can throw a wrench in his plans, especially on U.S. policy in Ukraine. In the fall, Menendez introduced the Ukraine Freedom Support Act, which would allow the U.S. to impose more sanctions on various Russian sectors and send for lethal and nonlethal aid to the Ukrainian military. Obama signed the bill into law in December, but his administration's policy toward Russia, characterized by sanctions and calls for diplomatic solutions, has remained largely unchanged. No sanctions have been implemented under this law, and no defensive weapons have been shipped to Ukraine.
(Related: More Democrats Urge Obama To Arm Ukrainians)
"This legislation was necessary in December, and it is even more necessary today," Menendez said Monday. "Implementing it is a very important first step."
Next week marks the one-year anniversary of Russia's annexation of the Ukrainian peninsula of Crimea. The White House said this week that they have no announcements to make about greater sanctions against Russia. Obama has previously said that he hasn't ruled out sending weapons to Ukraine.
Menendez said Monday that he views this as the administration dragging its feet in the Ukraine conflict. Other nations are looking to the West to stop the Moscow-backed separatist movement in eastern Ukraine. Standing by only emboldens the U.S.'s enemies—which he called "other actors in the world"—who could use American reluctance as an excuse to foment other conflicts.
"That is an incredibly risky world to live in," Menendez said.
Menendez has been at odds with the administration on other foreign policy matters. The senator has criticized Obama's handling of nuclear talks with Iran, and escorted Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu into the House chamber for a biting rebuke of the emerging U.S.-led deal last week. In December, Menendez said a White House-brokered deal to release an American aid worker from a Cuban prison "vindicated the brutal behavior of the Cuban government."