UNION CITY, N.J. — A defiant Sen. Bob Menendez on Monday doubled down that he will not resign under the cloud of a damning federal bribery indictment and a state party apparatus that has largely abandoned him.
The remarks were made in Union City, Menendez’s hometown where he started his political career as a school board member in the 1970s and eventually became mayor. Menendez said “this will be the biggest fight yet” for him, although he doubled down on his innocence. He did not take questions.
“The allegations leveled against me are just that — allegations,” he said from Hudson County College. He added, “I firmly believe that when all the facts are presented, not only will I be exonerated, but I will still be New Jersey’s senior senator.”
Menendez is accused of using his office to benefit New Jersey businesspeople and the Egyptian government in exchange for gold bars, cash and a new luxury vehicle, among other things.
The charges made by federal prosecutors from the Southern District of New York, he said, were made to be “as salacious as possible.” The senator addressed some of the allegations put forth by federal prosecutors, who searched his home in Bergen County in June 2022. Prosecutors found $550,000 in cash as well as gold bars in the house and a safe deposit box, which they say Menendez received as bribes.
“For 30 years I have withdrawn thousands of dollars in cash from my personal savings account which I have kept for emergencies and because of the history of my family facing confiscation in Cuba,” Menendez said. “This may seem old fashioned, but these were monies drawn from my personal savings account based on the income I have lawfully derived over those 30 years.”
He did not address, however, why he allegedly had bars of gold as well as a new luxury vehicle — the latter of which prosecutors say he obtained in exchange for interfering in a state criminal prosecution for an associate. He also did not address allegations from prosecutors that cash found in his home had DNA or fingerprints from co-defendants in the indictment and people linked to them.
Menendez, who until recently was the chair of the powerful Senate Foreign Relations Committee, is also accused by prosecutors for using his office to influence weapons deals to Egypt in exchange for bribes. Menendez said it was “indisputable” that he was “on the side of civil society and human rights defenders in Egypt” and has “challenged [Egyptian] President [Abdel Fattah El] Sisi directly.”
“I have always worked to hold accountable those countries including Egypt for human rights abuses and repression of its citizenry … those who now are attempting to malign my actions as it relates to Egypt simply don’t know the facts,” he said.
Menendez had roughly more than a dozen supporters and staffers lined up behind him. It is unclear who they all were — the lineup did not include any prominent elected officials and a spokesperson did not immediately identify them — although Menendez called them “everyday people and constituents.” It was a notable shift from his 2015 indictment when he quickly had top Democrats lined up to support him.
It’s Menendez’s third time being in the crosshairs of federal investigators since he entered the Senate and the second indictment on corruption charges over the past decade. He was indicted in 2015 on bribery allegations, although that ended in a mistrial. He was, however, admonished by the Senate Ethics Committee for the matter.
“Prosecutors get it wrong sometimes,” he said during the press conference “Sadly, I know that.”
This time, however, Menendez faces seemingly insurmountable political headwinds on top of his legal troubles.
A tranche of influential state Democrats — including Gov. Phil Murphy, state Democratic Chair LeRoy Jones and the state legislature’s Senate President and Assembly Speaker — have publicly called for Menendez’s resignation after the indictment was unsealed on Friday (should Menendez resign, Murphy would have the power to appoint a replacement to the Senate).
Menendez — while not directly mentioning anyone — said that “others have rushed to judgment because they see a political opportunity for themselves or those around them.”
Menendez’s defiance is characteristic, though he was forced to resign his powerful leadership position on the Foreign Relations Committee due to Senate rules Friday. But his unwillingness to step down also plays a practical purpose: To raise money for his legal defense.
Menendez did not announce he plans to seek reelection to the Senate in 2024, as was expected. Still, the race to challenge Menndez for his Senate seat in 2024 is quickly taking shape. U.S. Rep. Andy Kim (D-N.J.) and progressive activist Larry Hamm have announced they will run for the seat. Other ambitious New Jersey Democrats — including Reps. Josh Gottheimer and Mikie Sherrill — are also mentioned as possible successors amongst the state’s chattering class.
There is some electoral history to suggest Menendez is in trouble if he does seek reelection. In 2018 after Menendez survived his first corruption indictment, a virtually unknown candidate with non-existent resources nearly got 40 percent of the vote against Menendez in the Democratic primary — and that was when he had the backing of state Democrats.
An open Senate seat in New Jersey is a golden opportunity for an ambitious New Jersey Democrat; the state has not elected a Republican to the U.S. Senate since Clifford Case won reelection in 1972. With the state’s overwhelming Democratic preference in statewide federal elections, that is unlikely to change. However, the prospect of Menendez being the Democratic nominee in 2024 could make the seat much more competitive.
Menendez as well as his wife, who is also charged in the case, and three New York businessmen are expected to appear in federal court Wednesday in Manhattan to address the charges.
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