Senate Dem: Cuba trade rewards 'brutal behavior'

Sen. Robert MenendezRobert MenendezWarren, Menendez question shakeup at Wells Fargo Democrats press Wells Fargo CEO for more answers on scandal Dem senator: Louisiana Republican 'found Jesus' on flood funding MORE (N.J.), the top Democrat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, is slamming President Obama over the deal to release an American held in Cuba. 

“President Obama's actions have vindicated the brutal behavior of the Cuban government," Menendez, known for his tough stance on Cuba, said in a statement.

"There is no equivalence between an international aid worker and convicted spies who were found guilty of conspiracy to commit espionage against our nation."

American aid worker Alan Gross, who was held in Cuba for five years for trying to set up Internet for a small Jewish community, was released on Wednesday as the U.S. released three Cuban agents convicted of spying. 

Menendez said the move "sets an extremely dangerous precedent."

"It invites dictatorial and rogue regimes to use Americans serving overseas as bargaining chips. I fear that today’s actions will put at risk the thousands of Americans that work overseas to support civil society, advocate for access to information, provide humanitarian services, and promote democratic reforms."

Obama's move to begin normalizing relations with Cuba is reverberating across the political world, with members of both parties blasting the decision.

Asked about Menendez's statement, White House press secretary Josh Earnest said that although the administration "obviously have tremendous respect" for the senator, they rejected his characterization of the deal.

"We fundamentally disagree, and there's no soft-pedaling that," Earnest said.

Earnest insisted Menendez was wrong to describe the release of the three Cuban spies as a swap for Gross. Earnest argued that Gross was freed humanitarian grounds, while the spies were freed in exchange for a U.S. intelligence asset who had been jailed in Cuba for nearly 20 years.

"There was no concession. Mr. Gross was released on humanitarian grounds."

Justin Sink contributed.

This story was updated at 2:58 p.m.