Declaring he would not be “reflexive” in opposing programs and nominees proposed by the Trump administration, Sen. Robert Menendez (D-NJ) told NJJN he remains undecided about the selection of attorney David Friedman to become the next United States ambassador to Israel.
“I look forward to spending time with Mr. Friedman and to hearing his views and elucidating his positions,” the senator said in an exclusive interview with NJJN.
Like Friedman, Menendez has supported relocating the American embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. But as a member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, he said the move “is a question of timing” that could have serious negative repercussions in the Arab world. He said his doubts persisted after meeting with King Abdullah II of Jordan, whom he called “an important ally of Israel and the United States.”
Menendez, who was frequently critical of former President Barack Obama’s stance on Israel and the multinational nuclear deal with Iran, said he “strongly strongly” opposed the Obama administration’s abstention at the United Nations Security Council’s condemnation of Israel’s West Bank settlements. He called the resolution “one-sided and emblematic of an anti-Israel bias at the U.N. The Security Council can’t deal with the massacre of Syrians. It cannot deal with the North Koreans firing missiles or the Iranians firing missiles, but it has plenty of time to pursue resolutions on Israel.”
He promised to treat President Trump the same as the three other presidents who were in office while he was in the senate, Bill Clinton, George W. Bush, and Barack Obama. “When I am in agreement, I will be a strong supporter. When I am in disagreement, I will be a strong opponent and dissenter,” he said.
That has already been the case in the president’s first two weeks in office. Menendez voted in favor of Gen. James Mathis to become secretary of defense; Nikki Haley as the American ambassador to the U.N.; Gen. John Kelly for secretary of homeland security; and said he is “still reviewing” the nominations of Sen. Jeff Sessions to become attorney general and Neil Gorsuch to become a Supreme Court justice.
But Menendez was one of 43 Democrats to vote against confirming Rex Tillerson as secretary of state, and he has declared his opposition to Betsy deVos as secretary of education, Steven Mnuchin as secretary of the treasury, and Rep. Tom Price (R-Ga.) as secretary of health and human services. Like all of his fellow Democrats on the Senate Banking Committee, he stayed away from the Feb. 1 confirmation hearings on Mnuchin and Price.
“The reason we took this unusual step of boycotting was because of statements made by the two nominees who had been totally factually contradicted. And — I’ll say this in the nicest way — I am not going to say they lied, but they have been factually contradicted on issues raised before the committee.”
An issue of great concern to Menendez was one he raised to Mnuchin during an earlier hearing. He asked about the nominee’s action as chair of One
West Bank, which reportedly engaged in automatically “robo-signing” foreclosure orders on tens of thousands of homeowners throughout the country. He also objected to what he called Price’s “lack of fidelity to science,” for denying human responsibility for climate change.
“The bottom line was that those answers were patently not correct,” said the senator. But committee chair Orrin Hatch (R-Utah) refused a request to recall the nominees and other witnesses to discuss testimony Menendez said was “in direct contravention to what was stated under oath on the record. We are not ready to rubber-stamp a process. The chairman refused to do due diligence and in the absence of that we were not going to participate in what I think is a sham.”
Menendez also said he was deeply troubled by Trump’s appointment of chief strategist Steve Bannon to the National Security Council (NSC) and the downgrading of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and the director of national intelligence.
“Mr. Bannon has no place on the National Security Council,” the senator declared. He called Bannon “a political entity” whose NSC appointment “undermines the strength of the institution.”
As he surveys America, Menendez looks at a nation he considers “deeply divided.” He noted there were similar “great divisions” during the Vietnam War era “but we have always been resilient as a nation and ended up in the right place. But we could use leadership on all levels that actually engages in bridging the divide — not just simply throwing gasoline on the fire,” he said.
He opposed the administration’s ban on immigration from seven Muslim nations as “in total contravention to American values and national security interests and is not a unifying action.” He said the peaceful marchers who have been demonstrating against Trump’s policies and appointees “give me hope. At the end of the day that is the essence of American democracy.”
The senator hesitated when asked whether the Republicans who have opposed Trump during the presidential campaign will have the fortitude to do so now that he’s in office.
“That remains to be seen,” he replied, noting that others beside Sen. Lindsay Graham (R-SC) and John McCain (R-Ariz.) “have expressed their deep concern about where the president is headed, how he has acted, and what it means for the days ahead…They are hoping for better days, but some of them are incredibly anxious, even as they have a public face of support at this point.”
But as someone who has a record of opposing presidents in his own party on foreign policy issues, Menendez said, “it takes a profile in courage. It is not easy to buck the president of your party. But when appropriate it is the highest calling of a member of the Senate.
“I always trust in the better angels of the American people, not withstanding their leaders,” he said. “But I think President Trump has an obligation to be the president of all the people — not just in words, but in actions.”
NJJN Editor Gabe Kahn contributed to this article.