Bob Menendez Isn’t Merely Corrupt. He Carried Water for a Brutal Dictator.

Bob Menendez’s cartoonish bribery case — complete with gold bars and a Mercedes-Benz — isn’t just exhibit A in Washington corruption. It’s a reminder that US allies like Egypt’s dictatorship, not Russia or China, are often the ones meddling in US politics.

Senator Bob Menendez and his wife Nadine arrive for a court appearance at Manhattan Federal Court on September 27, 2023 in New York City. (Michael M. Santiago / Getty Images)

At a time when political discourse is suffused with talk of shadowy conspiracies and the Russian or Chinese governments lurking behind all manner of domestic ills plaguing the United States, it’s good to be reminded that the foreign states that most frequently interfere in US politics are often not those seen as enemies, but as friends. Just look at the Bob Menendez indictment.

New Jersey’s long-serving Democratic senator, Menendez, along with his wife and three businessmen, was slapped with bribery charges last Friday over sensational allegations that would not be out of place in the Russiagate saga or in a right-wing cable news screed about “China Joe.” The twist: the foreign government that Menendez was working for was the despotic but friendly government of Egypt.

“Our Man” in America

The charges are quite something. According to the indictment, Menendez — who has sat on the powerful Senate Foreign Relations Committee since 2007, for four years as chairman — carried water for the Egyptian government through his connection to Egyptian-American businessman Wael Hana, whom he met through his girlfriend (and, later, wife), and who had connections with Egyptian intelligence, military, and other government officials. Menendez was such a reliable conduit for Egyptian state interests, according to the indictment, that at one point Hana referred to him as “our man.”

Through what the Department of Justice calls his “corrupt relationship” with the Egyptian government and Hana, Menendez carried out tasks that brazenly flouted human rights concerns. Even as US military aid and sales to Abdel Fattah el-Sisi’s brutal dictatorship was coming under increased scrutiny, Menendez intervened repeatedly to ensure it kept flowing, meeting secretly with Egyptian officials to discuss the matter — in one case, in his Senate office, without the presence of his staff or that of the Foreign Relations Committee — and with the Egyptian government sending him “briefing materials advocating Egyptian foreign policy goals and positions.” At one point, Menendez edited and ghostwrote, at the request of an Egyptian official, a letter meant to lobby fellow senators to support military aid to the country.

One particularly eyebrow-raising incident came in 2018, when Menendez requested information from the State Department about who was serving in the US embassy in Cairo: the nationality of embassy staff, what posts they held, and the ratio of Egyptians to Americans. He proceeded to text that information to his girlfriend to relay to the Egyptian government, without telling any staffers or relevant authorities that he was doing so. “Although this information was not classified,” the indictment states, “it was deemed highly sensitive because it could pose significant operational security concerns if disclosed to a foreign government or if made public.”

But perhaps most outrageous was Menendez’s intervention on behalf of Hana’s company, IS EG Halal, to make sure it hung onto a lucrative monopoly on halal certification for US food exports to Egypt that the el-Sisi government had granted to it in spring 2019. On its still-active website, the firm boasts that it “is the only entity exclusively authorized by the Government of Egypt to certify Halal exports worldwide,” and that it received this privilege as a way to ensure “a single, unified global Halal standard” in an industry “plagued by the issue of differing certification standards.”

The certification decision plainly made no sense: in the years prior, multiple US companies had been responsible for certifying halal meat exports, and now they were being replaced by a single one that had no experience in halal authorization (nor did the man who operated it), and that posted “little to no revenue” in the years before it got the exclusive rights, according to the indictment.

The US Department of Agriculture (USDA) soon stepped in and asked the Egyptian government to reverse itself, not for any of these reasons, but because the monopoly had raised costs for US companies. After being asked to counter the USDA in a meeting with Hana and an Egyptian intelligence official, Menendez, armed with briefing materials from the Egyptian government, phoned a high-ranking USDA official and demanded it drop the matter.

And what did Menendez allegedly get for his hard work on behalf of the Egyptian government? Bribes — and a lot of them. There was a Mercedes-Benz convertible, a no-show job for his girlfriend, more than $100,000 worth of gold bars, and more than $480,000 in cash, “much of it stuffed into envelopes and hidden in clothing, closets, and a safe” when the senator’s home was searched, according to the indictment. Not bad for a few years’ work. In fact, IS EG Halal, besides existing to make Hana a lot of money, was set up to funnel bribes to Menendez and his partner, the indictment states.

The thing is, neither Menendez’s corruption, nor the way it fed into his uber-hawkish foreign policy, was unknown before the new allegations. Democrats rallied around Menendez when he went to trial on bribery charges in 2017 and helped him survive that scandal, even as he was notably at odds with both the Barack Obama and Joe Biden administrations, as well as the wider Democratic Party, on the Iran nuclear deal. He took that hard-line stance while becoming the top recipient of donations from the Mojahedin-e Khalq, an Iranian opposition group in exile that was for years designated a terrorist group by the US government, and for whom Menendez often served as a fierce advocate.

Bigger Than Bribes

There’s a bigger point here than one senator’s particularly egregious corruption and the Democratic Party’s yearslong willingness to tolerate it. Menendez’s case is a useful reminder that for all the paranoid talk of Russia or China puppeteering events in the United States and holding politicians and media figures as assets, it’s usually those countries with which the US government has close relations that do the bulk of the meddling in US affairs.

Consider the Saudi government, which despite — or maybe more accurately, because of — years of close ties with the United States and intimate connections between high-ranking officials on both sides, was directly complicit in the September 11 attacks. Among other things, the monarchy’s extensive domestic influence operations have ensured it’s faced little censure for this and other crimes. Former high-ranking US officials cycle into adviser positions to its government; it invests in powerful tech firms, the entertainment industry, and professional sports; it funds influential think tanks that shape US discourse; and it counts among its foreign agents former members of congress, their staff, executive branch appointees, and active partisan fundraisers, agents that have donated millions to politicians running for office. This is all okay, presumably, because it’s not remotely covert, but rather out in the open.

Or take Israel, with its even friendlier and longer-standing relationship with the United States. The Israeli government has meddled for decades in US affairs, whether by recruiting a spy to steal US intelligence secrets in the 1980s, working to derail a Democratic president’s signature foreign policy achievement, lobbying for US military intervention, or colluding with a presidential campaign to get its preferred candidate into office, as then prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu did with the Trump campaign in 2016. As Netanyahu himself once said, “America is a thing you can move very easily, move it in the right direction.”

It’s significant that the Menendez indictment is overwhelmingly being framed as a story of corruption and bribery, and not as one of shadowy foreign influence, even as such allegations, typically false ones, have become a regular feature of US politics. Foreign interference, political meddling — those are only things that US adversaries do. When a blood-soaked tyrant that Washington is in bed with counts a powerful senator as an asset, well, that’s just the way the system works.