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The Bob Menendez trial is starting. Why his Senate colleagues don’t want to talk about it

The Bob Menendez trial is starting. Why his Senate colleagues don't want to talk about it

WASHINGTON – The criminal trial of Sen. Bob Menendez, D-N.J. on federal bribery charges is set to begin on Monday, but you wouldn’t know it in the U.S. Senate.

Menendez, 70, was indicted in September on charges that he allegedly took hundreds of thousands of dollars in bribes in exchange for using his position to benefit three New Jersey businessmen and the Egyptian and Qatari governments. He has pleaded not guilty and vowed to defeat the charges in court.

Asked about the trial ahead and what it’s been like serving with Menendez in the months since his legal troubles exploded into public view, most of his colleagues steered clear of the subject.

“I don’t want to really go there,” said Sen. Tim Kaine, D-Va.

“I have no comment on that at all,” said Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.V.

“I’ve got to be really, really honest with you, it wasn’t even on my mind until you brought it up,” said Sen. Jon Tester, D-Mont.

Even his Republican peers were polite and tight-lipped: “I’ve always found Sen. Menendez had very good questions on Foreign Relations,” said Sen. Pete Ricketts, R-Neb., who serves on the committee with him.

“I’ll let the justice system work its will,” said Sen. Ron Johnson, R-Wis. “I really have no comment.”

That’s the way it’s done in the Senate, where the politesse of a seemingly bygone political era still reigns supreme. But behind the scenes in the months since he was indicted, the once-connected Menendez has become somewhat of a loner in the upper chamber. He’s stepped down from his role as chairman of the powerful Senate Foreign Relations Committee but maintains a presence on the panel.

Menendez still shows up to vote and does his job, but otherwise keeps to himself. As reporters swarm other senators in the Capitol’s hallways, he walks by without being approached, or slips in and out of the historic chamber without notice.

In the days following the news of the indictment last fall, more than half of Menendez’s colleagues in the Senate Democratic caucus called for him to resign – including his fellow New Jersey senator, Cory Booker, who served as a character witness for him when he was previously on trial on separate corruption charges. That case, brought in 2015 by the Justice Department, concluded with a mistrial in 2017 when the jury deadlocked.

“I’m proud that I spoke to the Menendez I knew then. One of the more difficult times I’ve had as a United States Senator was to call for a man to resign even though I believe everyone has a right to be presumed innocent until proven guilty,” Booker said Thursday.

“So before people pile on, whether they want to judge or not his character, they should do what I do, which is be thankful that we live in a country where you can have your day in court and make your defense.”

Booker added that he “of course” has continued working with Menendez since the indictment, as he has not stepped down: “I think it’s vital that we have two senators who are fighting for their state.”

Only Sen. John Fetterman, D-Pa. – the first Democratic senator to call for him to resign – has kept up the drumbeat, repeatedly lambasting Menendez as a crook.

“He gets his day. People are going to get to decide whether or not he’s a sleazeball, or if he is a really, really big sleazeball,” Fetterman said. One reporter spotted Menendez hanging back to avoid sharing an elevator with Fetterman earlier this week.

Senator Bob Menendez (D-NJ) and his wife Nadine Menendez depart a Manhattan court following an arraignment on new charges in the federal bribery case against them on March 11, 2024 in New York City.

Senator Bob Menendez (D-NJ) and his wife Nadine Menendez depart a Manhattan court following an arraignment on new charges in the federal bribery case against them on March 11, 2024 in New York City.

The case against Menendez

According to federal prosecutors, Menendez and his wife Nadine Arslanian Menendez helped three businessmen get funding from a Qatari investment company in exchange for gifts, including envelopes stuffed with cash, a Mercedes-Benz convertible, expensive watches and gold bars.

The FBI and the U.S. Attorney’s office in the Southern District of New York have expanded their charges against Menendez multiple times since first filing them in September.

Initially, Menendez was alleged to have helped an Egyptian businessman, Wael Hana, secure a monopoly on halal meat imports from Egypt to the United States while funneling aid to the Egyptian government.

Then prosecutors alleged that he helped another businessman, Fred Daibes, get connected to a member of the Qatari royal family who led an investment company, which would invest in Daibes’ real estate plans in New Jersey. While Daibes and the investor were negotiating the deal, according to the indictment, Menendez made multiple public statements supporting the Qatari government and prompted Daibes to send those statements to a Qatari official and the investor.

And prosecutors allege that Menendez tried to help Daibes and a former insurance broker, Jose Uribe, receive more lenient treatment in separate criminal investigations in exchange for bribes. Uribe has since changed his plea from not guilty to guilty.

In January, they added new charges of conspiracy to obstruct justice and obstruction of justice, alleging that Menendez and his wife tried to return some, “but not all,” of the money used to buy the convertible by disguising it as payback for a personal loan.

Menendez’s wife is being tried separately due to a medical issue. Court filings unsealed last month indicate that Menendez’s attorneys may seek to blame her by showing “the ways in which she withheld information” from him “or otherwise led him to believe that nothing unlawful was taking place.”

The trial begins on Monday with jury selection and is expected to run for several weeks at the federal courthouse in Lower Manhattan.

Menendez is the 13th senator in U.S. history to be indicted while holding office, according to the U.S. Senate Historical office, and the fourth senator to be indicted multiple times while serving in the upper chamber.

Menendez was previously charged in 2015 with allegedly taking gifts and campaign donations in exchange for favors, though he maintained that the gifts were simply the product of a long friendship. The DOJ outright dropped its charges in early 2018 after the mistrial, though the Senate Ethics Committee “severely admonished” Menendez, who would go on that November to win reelection to a third full term despite public backlash over his legal troubles.

The senator’s second criminal trial comes as one other sitting member of Congress, Rep. Henry Cuellar, D-Texas, also faces charges of bribery and money laundering. Former Rep. George Santos, R-N.Y., was also indicted on charges of wire fraud and money laundering before being expelled from Congress in December. Santos’ trial is scheduled to begin Sept. 9 in Long Island, N.Y., federal court.

In March, Menendez said he would not run for Senate again this fall as a Democrat, though hinted that he may mount an independent bid.

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Bob Menendez’s trial is starting. Senators would rather not discuss it

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