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Corruption Charges Bad for Menendez, Worse for Egypt
Plus: No easy way out of a government shutdown.
Good afternoon and welcome to Press Pass, The Bulwark’s twice-weekly newsletter on Congress, campaigns, and the way Washington works. Today’s newsletter is free, but Thursday editions are exclusively for Bulwark+ subscribers, so if you’re not already a member, consider signing up today.
Today’s newsletter looks at the other side of the coin—or in this case, gold brick—in the matter of Sen. Bob Menendez’s (D-N.J.) indictment for allegedly taking bribes from the Egyptian government. We’ll also preview a tough week on Capitol Hill in advance of the government (maybe) shutting down on Saturday, and we’ll share what you need to know about the second Republican presidential primary debate tomorrow night. All that and more, below.
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By now you’ve likely seen the bribery charges against Sen. Bob Menendez (D-N.J.), the stacks of cash and gold bricks, and his defiance in the wake of calls for him to resign across New Jersey, the Senate, and the Democratic party. But there’s another very concerning element to all of this, and Menendez isn’t the only one who could be severely punished as a result of the alleged scheme.
The government of Egypt allegedly ran an operation on a U.S. senator by providing mafia-style kickbacks in exchange for coveted information, his interventions to help keep the spigot of foreign aid open, and his assistance in evading accountability for the government’s human rights abuses.
During the period outlined in the Menendez indictment, Egypt routinely engaged in human rights violations that include suppressing protests and freedom of speech during the lead-up to the United Nations Climate Change Conference. Sometimes government forces disappeared Egyptian citizens and executed them following what Amnesty International described as “grossly unfair trials.” Egyptian authorities also forced evictions against protesters of home demolitions and “prosecuted Christians demanding their right to worship and others espousing religious beliefs not sanctioned by the state.” Egypt also allegedly played a major role in the murder of Jamal Khashoggi, according to a 2021 report from Yahoo’s Michael Isikoff.
Egypt’s crackdowns on many fundamental rights were well known in Congress and around the world. This didn’t stop Congress from providing them with more military aid than nearly any other recipient. For example, Egypt received $1.3 billion from the U.S. in 2020, an amount it has received consistently each year since the Camp David accords in 1979.
No matter what the Egyptian government did, Menendez played a key role in ensuring Egypt kept receiving financial aid from the U.S. government, according to the Justice Department:
At various times between 2018 and 2022, MENENDEZ also conveyed to Egyptian officials, through NADINE MENENDEZ, HANA, and/or DAIBES, that he would approve or remove holds on foreign military financing and sales of military equipment to Egypt in connection with his leadership role on the [Senate Foreign Relations Committee].
This included allegedly ghostwriting a letter on behalf of Egypt seeking to release $300 million in aid. Normally, such an appeal would be composed in-house or by a respective country’s registered foreign agents in the United States.
It’s not as though the Egyptians weren’t also doing traditional above-board business in Washington during the same period. The Egyptian Ministry of Foreign Affairs has employed Brownstein Hyatt Farber Schreck as its lobby shop since November 2020, according to a Foreign Agents Registration Act filing. But above-board lobbyists can only do so much. There would certainly be a lot of potential (risky) upside to secretly employing someone like Menendez, the longtime chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.
Egypt’s behavior—both on the human-rights front and for its role in this alleged bribery scheme—could come back to hurt them. A small contingent of lawmakers has repeatedly called for reforms to the amount of aid Egypt keeps receiving. Each year, Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) and a handful of Senate Democrats have called to restrict military aid to Egypt (a portion of the annual aid package is conditional and can be withheld if the country fails to meet human rights-related benchmarks); they most recently advocated this restriction in July. In a letter to Secretary of State Antony Blinken, the senators wrote:
Over the past year, the Egyptian government’s track record on these criteria has not improved. Ahead of presidential elections scheduled next year, the Egyptian government has detained supporters and family members of a challenger who intends to run against President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi. The government has forced NGOs to register under a draconian law that prohibits any activities it deems political. The government has not only failed to investigate allegations of human rights abuses, it has also continued to commit “significant human rights” violations such as extrajudicial killings, enforced disappearance, torture and life-threating prison conditions, and severe restrictions on freedoms of expression, assembly, and association, as documented in the State Department’s latest human rights report. . . .
The decision the administration will make as to whether to enforce the conditions set forth by Congress on holding Egypt accountable for progress on human rights is critical to advancing long-term U.S. interests in Egypt and American credibility on human rights globally. We urge the administration to withhold the full $320 million as called for by the FY22 Appropriations Act until Egypt’s human rights record improves.
This summer, nearly two dozen human rights organizations and think tanks also pleaded with the Biden administration to rethink its policy toward Egypt.
Earlier this month, a portion of Egypt’s annual U.S. financial aid package was redirected to Taiwan. According to Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.), the decision was made in response to a lack of progress on freeing political prisoners, among other human rights–related issues.
Egypt’s human-rights abuses have been a matter of longstanding concern to American lawmakers, and the Menendez revelations are sure to make things harder for the country. With their secret champion sidelined from his chairmanship of the Foreign Relations Committee during the indictment, they will have to lean hard on their registered lobbyists to restore their image and advance their interests.
The government funding clock runs out in five days
When I was playing Pop Warner football in the early 2000s, my game was always scheduled in the morning before my older brother’s age group played. So, tired and sweaty, I would always watch all of his game before our family headed home. One time, my brother’s team was finishing off a nailbiter against the Bayview Cobras, up by less than a touchdown. I don’t recall any early moments of his game or the entire game I had myself played the hour before, but do I remember the Cobras running a no-huddle offense and spiking the ball to stop the clock. Unfortunately for this team of San Francisco tweens, they spiked the ball on fourth down, ending the game through their own disorganized confusion.
The House’s two-minute drill to avert a government shutdown will require some kind of miracle—a Hail Mary, if you will—but I fear they are just as disorganized as the poor Cobras and likelier to spike the ball than get it down the field. There is no deal in place, and we’re far from seeing something even close to being agreeable to the White House, Senate, House, and perpetually dissatisfied House Freedom Caucus, who will all have to agree on it to keep the government open.
The House is voting tonight on four spending bills. It’s not clear whether they will pass without a heavy assist from Democrats, but regardless, even passing them would not avert a shutdown. McCarthy is bringing them forward in an attempt to appease far-right members of his conference and enlist their support to pass a funding bill to avert the shutdown. The things that make them appealing to that wing of the party are deep spending cuts, which are precisely what will make them a nonstarter for the Democratic majority in the Senate.
And while the Senate is slowly crafting a short-term funding bill that could delay a shutdown for another month, it’s similarly anyone's guess as to whether it could make it through the House. Any such fix would require House Democrats coming to House Speaker Kevin McCarthy’s rescue, as they did during the May debt ceiling compromise. But this enraged House conservatives, and the next time McCarthy crosses the aisle, it might finally prompt Freedom Caucusers to bring forward a motion to vacate—the formal term for tarring and feathering McCarthy in front of the whole country before deposing him.
As I said during last week’s Thursday Night Bulwark, I’m not optimistic about a compromise that doesn’t end in tears.
2 Debate 2 Furious
The second Republican presidential primary debate is tomorrow. It will be broadcast on Fox Business and Univision at 9:00 p.m. EDT from the Reagan Presidential Library in Simi Valley, California.
The stage will feature fewer candidates due to both the RNC’s strict requirements for participation and Donald Trump’s refusal to appear. The candidates who will be featured are:
Whether you’re watching or not, The Bulwark will have plenty of post-game analysis, so make sure you’re subscribed to Bulwark+ to catch it all.