Take My Wife, Please: For Political Damage Control, Just Blame Your Spouse

Nadine Menendez and her husband Sen. Bob Menendez (D-N.J.), whose lawyer blamed the senator’s wife and her financial troubles for what prosecutors have described as a bribery scheme involving foreign governments, walk together outside the federal district courthouse in Manhattan, March 11, 2024. (Jefferson Siegel/The New York Times)
Nadine Menendez and her husband Sen. Bob Menendez (D-N.J.), whose lawyer blamed the senator’s wife and her financial troubles for what prosecutors have described as a bribery scheme involving foreign governments, walk together outside the federal district courthouse in Manhattan, March 11, 2024. (Jefferson Siegel/The New York Times)

It is a tale as old as Adam and Eve: A husband, faced with accusations of misconduct, blames the wife.

It is also a time-honored, bipartisan political strategy. This week, Supreme Court Justice Samuel Alito and U.S. Sen. Bob Menendez, D-N.J., pointed ringed fingers at their wives for episodes that have landed each man in political or legal trouble.

“It was briefly placed by Mrs. Alito,” Alito, one of the Supreme Court’s most conservative members, told The New York Times in explaining an upside-down American flag — a “Stop the Steal” symbol of protest by former President Donald Trump’s supporters — flying on a pole in the family’s front lawn in the days before President Joe Biden’s 2021 inauguration. Alito’s wife, Martha-Ann, was in a feud with neighbors at the time over an anti-Trump sign, the Times reported.

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In the case of Menendez, it was his lawyer who did the finger pointing. On Wednesday, in a federal courtroom in New York City, the lawyer, Avi Weitzman, blamed the senator’s wife and her financial troubles for what prosecutors have described as a bribery scheme involving foreign governments and hundreds of thousands of dollars in gifts.

“She tried to get cash and assets any which way she could,” Weitzman told the jury. “She kept him in the dark on what she was asking others to give her.” (The senator’s wife, Nadine, also faces charges in the case but will be tried separately, after a breast cancer diagnosis. She has pleaded not guilty, and a lawyer representing her declined to comment.)

Casting blame on a spouse for perceived misdeeds may help relieve the immediate pressure on a public official, but it does so, necessarily, by exposing the most intimate of partnerships to scrutiny and scorn.

And, of course, there’s the reputational and interpersonal fallout from throwing your wife under the bus.

“Given how the public generally holds women to a higher ethical standard than men and expect them to take raps for behavior men routinely get away with, I could see how men might think blaming their wife for a misdeed could shield them from criticism,” said Jennifer Palmieri, a political strategist who knows about spousal controversy from working on the presidential campaigns of John Edwards and Hillary Clinton. “But not when it involves your wife. You just look like a coward.”

Sidestepping political controversy and pushing your wife directly into it is a move bound to prompt accusations of sexism, as it often plays on negative stereotypes of manipulative, ambitious or status-obsessed political wives with uncontrollable emotions and an outsize sense of entitlement.

Alito’s claim about his wife would seem to put her into a different category: a wife whose strongly held, unwisely advertised opinions become a professional liability for her husband. (Neither has been charged with a crime or formally accused of wrongdoing.)

Political spouse scandals often arise from the inevitable marital disruption created when one member of a couple rises to a high-visibility job that, at least in theory, is bound by particular laws and codes of ethics. Not only does it force the spouses into new public roles, it also means they can be natural scapegoats when something goes awry, whether they embrace it or not.

“​​This is not normal behavior; this is not normal marital strife,” said former U.S. Rep. Brian Baird, D-Wash., who was a practicing psychologist for two decades before spending a dozen years in Congress. “Lots of us go through marital strife, but that strife does not include acting in ways that are extraordinarily questionable or self-enriching or undermining the political system itself and then making excuses for that.”

One of the most important public corruption cases in recent decades centered on the marriage of Bob McDonnell, a Republican former governor of Virginia.

McDonnell and his wife, Maureen, faced federal charges stemming from more than $165,000 in loans and gifts given to the family by a nutritional-supplements executive. At their trial, in 2014, McDonnell’s lawyers said the couple had been too estranged to engage in a conspiracy, seizing on a witness’s description of her as a “nutbag” and saying she had become fixated on luxury goods.

McDonnell took the stand in his own defense, telling the jury that his wife had been disappointed in their financial circumstances and “overwhelmed” by the stress of her role in public office. Both were convicted, but the convictions were later overturned through a unanimous 2016 Supreme Court ruling that loosened federal bribery statutes. He filed for divorce three years later.

As with Nadine Menendez and Maureen McDonnell, politicians’ wives have faced legal consequences beyond public opprobrium.

In 2018, charged with stealing campaign money to support a lavish lifestyle, former Rep. Duncan D. Hunter, R-Calif., said his wife was responsible for the couple’s finances. Both later pleaded guilty to corruption.

There are also political couples whose professional ambitions and private transgressions are so closely intertwined that public condemnation flows freely between them, even when neither partner directly blames the other.

While Hillary Clinton was first lady, her husband’s foes on the political right painted her as a dangerous and manipulative figure. Later, her own political aspirations often collided, at times extremely uncomfortably, with her husband’s infidelity and his postpresidential work.

Sometimes, spouses’ political roles or outside employment complicate their partners’ official business.

Another Supreme Court justice, Clarence Thomas, has faced calls for his recusal or resignation after correspondence showed that his wife, Virginia, a longtime right-wing activist, sought to overthrow the results of the 2020 election.

And former Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, who died in 2020, faced criticism for not recusing herself from cases to which her husband, Martin Ginsburg, a tax lawyer, had direct or indirect ties.

Of course, Washington men behaving badly are sometimes called out by their wives. Just this week, Rep. Rich McCormick, R-Ga., filed for divorce and then watched as his wife, Debra Miller, publicly suggested that he had had an affair with a fellow member of Congress.

Women in public office have also gotten in trouble because of their romantic partners. In 2020, Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, a Democrat, blamed her husband’s “poor attempt at humor” after reports that he had tried to cajole a marina owner into putting his boat in the water before the Memorial Day rush.

Before Carol Moseley Braun was sworn in as a Democratic senator from Illinois in 1993, she came under fire because of accusations that her boyfriend, who was also her campaign manager, had sexually harassed women on the campaign staff.

Moseley Braun said in an interview Friday that political advisers at the time urged her to cast blame on her boyfriend and distance herself from him.

“I thought that would be cowardly of me to do,” she said. “I said, ‘This guy has not done anything wrong.’”

The typical posture from powerful men in Washington, she said, is the opposite.

“They just find somebody else to blame but me,” she said. “And the person closest to me is this woman over here, and you can kick her around as much as you want.”

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