As a legal matter, the indictment unsealed today by the U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of New York against Senator Menendez and his wife strikes me as the usual prosecutorial overreach. To make a federal case out of what the indictment calls "compensation for a low-or-no-show job," during a pandemic in which half the country was working remotely or hybrid, is a stretch. No actual underlying crimes are charged, just three counts of "conspiracy" — "conspiracy to commit bribery," "conspiracy to commit honest services fraud," and "conspiracy to commit extortion under color of official right." Congress should repeal these conspiracy statutes, which make a thought crime of supposedly planning a crime even when no crime is committed. The actual crimes are much harder to prove, because they require prosecutors to show that the politician did something that they wouldn't have done absent the bribe. In this case, Menendez could easily argue that, as a senator, he would have had an honest public interest in helping New Jersey businesses and in advancing a strong U.S.-Egypt foreign policy relationship. What his wife did for work is irrelevant. Unless Congress wants to outlaw paid work by congressional spouses, siblings, parents and children, some spouses will have jobs and friendships. The senator might claim he didn't know everything his wife was up to. It's a recurring story, in which everyone from Donald Trump to New York Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver to Virginia Governor Bob McDonnell to, in the matter of "honest services fraud," my fellow New York Sun columnist Conrad Black has been unjustly swept up.
As a political matter, though, it's a different story, creating an opening for Garden State Republicans to topple Menendez, who would be up for re-election in 2024, or to seize an open seat if he decides not to seek re-election. And it just so happens there is a Garden State Republican who would stand a chance of winning the seat: Chris Christie, who was governor of New Jersey from 2010 to 2018. Christie is now running for president, but his campaign isn't going anywhere. He has a much greater chance of being successful in a Senate race with the New Jersey electorate than with a national audience. He's a former prosecutor himself and thus has plenty of experience depicting people as guilty. Let Christie turn his formidable political talents against Menendez rather than Trump, and help the Republicans win a Senate majority that could advance the pro-growth, common sense policy positions Christie says he favors. A successful stint in the Senate could only strengthen Christie's future presidential prospects, and would have a bigger practical impact than a losing presidential campaign. It could even advance Christie's 2024 goal of stopping Donald Trump, by reducing the splintering of the anti-Trump vote and allowing the anti-Trump forces to consolidate around other candidates with broader appeal. Christie's campaign belongs not in the early presidential primary state of New Hampshire, but on his home turf of New Jersey.