WASHINGTON (AP) — With calls for his resignation increasing, New Jersey Sen. Robert Menendez is expected on Thursday to address his Democratic Senate colleagues for the first time since he was indicted on federal bribery charges.
More than half of Senate Democrats have said he should step down. But Menendez, who is scheduled to speak to his colleagues in a closed-door party luncheon in the Capitol, has so far signaled he has no plans to leave the Senate.
Menendez has taken a defiant tone in speeches and a press conference in recent days, even as his Democratic colleagues in New Jersey and Washington have abandoned him over the charges that he worked to secretly advance Egyptian interests and pressured prosecutors to help his friends. Menendez pleaded not guilty to the charges on Wednesday.
“I firmly believe that when all the facts are presented, not only will I be exonerated, but I still will be New Jersey’s senior senator,” Menendez said at a news conference earlier this week.
It is unclear what Menendez will say to his colleagues. But the caucus meeting could decide the road ahead for the three-term senator, who has already had to step down from his role as the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee due to the federal charges against him. He has not said whether he will run for reelection next year, and at least one Democrat, New Jersey Rep. Andy Kim, has already jumped into the primary.
Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., hinted at the uncertainty of Menendez’s political future when he announced on Wednesday that the New Jersey senator would address his colleagues the next day. “We’ll see what happens after that,” Schumer said.
Leaving his office ahead of the luncheon, Menendez did not answer questions about what he would tell his colleagues. “I look forward to addressing the caucus later,” he said.
Menendez is accused along with his wife, Nadine, in an indictment released Friday of using his position to aid the authoritarian government of Egypt and to pressure federal prosecutors to drop a case against a friend, among other allegations of corruption. The three-count indictment says they were paid gold bars, a luxury car and cash by three New Jersey businessmen as bribes in exchange for multiple corrupt acts.
More than 30 Senate Democrats, including several of Schumer’s top deputies in leadership, have said that Menendez should step aside from office. Schumer did not call for Menendez to resign, but he said he was “disappointed” and “disturbed” when he read the indictment.
“For senators, there’s a much much higher standard,” Schumer said. “And clearly when you read the indictment, Senator Menendez fell way, way below that standard.”
In court on Wednesday, Menendez spoke only when each defendant stood to acknowledge that they understood the charges against them. He was released on a $100,000 bond, and he must surrender any personal passports but will be allowed to keep an official passport that would allow him to travel outside the U.S. for government business. The judge ordered him not to have contact outside of the presence of lawyers with his co-defendants except for his wife.
It’s the second corruption case in a decade against Menendez, whose last trial involving different allegations ended with jurors failing to reach a verdict in 2017.
Menendez was similarly defiant as he fought those charges. But that time most of his colleagues stood by him — including fellow New Jersey Democratic Sen. Cory Booker, who was a character witness in his trial. On Tuesday, Booker called for his longtime colleague to step down, saying the new indictment includes “shocking allegations of corruption and specific, disturbing details of wrongdoing.”
Authorities say they found nearly $500,000 in cash, much of it hidden in clothing and closets, as well as more than $100,000 in gold bars in a search of the New Jersey home Menendez shares with his wife.
Menendez said Monday that the cash found in his home was drawn from his personal savings accounts over the years and that he kept it on hand for emergencies. One of the envelopes full of cash found at his home, however, bore the DNA of one of the businessmen who are charged as his co-conspirators, the indictment said. It was also marked with the real estate developer’s return address, according to prosecutors.
The indictment alleges repeated actions by Menendez to benefit Egypt, despite U.S. government misgivings over the country’s human rights record that in recent years have prompted Congress to attach restrictions on aid.
Prosecutors, who detailed meetings and dinners between Menendez and Egyptian officials, say Menendez gave sensitive U.S. government information to Egyptian officials and ghostwrote a letter to fellow senators encouraging them to lift a hold on $300 million in aid to Egypt, one of the top recipients of U.S. military support.