WASHINGTON — Sen. Bob Menendez came under heavy pressure to resign Tuesday as a surging number of his Democratic colleagues in the Senate, including fellow New Jersey Democrat Cory Booker, urged him to step aside over the federal bribery allegations against him.
Around half of Senate Democrats have now said that Menendez should resign, including several running for reelection next year. Calls for his resignation, including from the head of the Senate Democrats’ campaign arm, Michigan Sen. Gary Peters, came in quick succession after Booker called on his colleague to step aside. Menendez has refused to leave office but has not yet said whether he will run for reelection next year.
Menendez, the longtime chairman and top Democrat on the powerful Senate Foreign Relations Committee, and his wife, Nadine, are accused 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 bribes — gold bars, a luxury car and cash — by three New Jersey businessmen in exchange for the corrupt acts.
In a statement, Booker said that while Menendez deserves the presumption of innocence, senators should adhere to a higher standard, and the details of the allegations against Menendez have “shaken to the core” the faith and trust of his constituents. He said the indictment of Menendez includes “shocking allegations of corruption and specific, disturbing details of wrongdoing.”
“As senators, we operate in the public trust,” Booker said. “That trust is essential to our ability to do our work and perform our duties for our constituents.”
Menendez has denied any wrongdoing, saying he merely performed as any senator would and that the nearly half million dollars in cash found in his home — including some stuffed in pockets of clothing — was from personal savings and kept at hand for emergencies. Authorities recovered about 10 cash-filled envelopes that had the fingerprints of one of the other defendants in the case on them, according to the indictment.
Menendez, along with his wife and two of the businessmen co-defendants, are to be arraigned Wednesday.
Another defendant, Wael Hana, was arrested at New York's Kennedy Airport Tuesday after returning voluntarily from Egypt to face the charges. According to the indictment, Hana served as a conduit to Menendez for Egyptian military and intelligence officials, passing messages to and from the senator and arranging meetings.
Menendez's defiance in recent days is similar to his insistence that he was innocent after he first faced federal bribery charges eight years ago — a case that ended with a deadlocked jury in 2017. As he did then, he is stepping down from his leadership position on the Foreign Relations panel, as per Senate Democratic caucus rules. But he has otherwise made clear that he’s not going anywhere.
“I recognize this will be the biggest fight yet, but as I have stated throughout this whole process, 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 Monday at Hudson County Community College’s campus in Union City, where he grew up.
In the Capitol on Tuesday evening, Menendez declined to answer reporters' questions about Booker's statement. “I would refer you to all the previous statements I’ve already made. I think that’s plenty,” he said.
The calls for his resignation are in sharp contrast to his first case. And Booker’s call is especially significant in the clubby Senate, where home state colleagues tend to stay away from public criticism of each other. Booker and Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina testified as character witnesses in Menendez's last trial.
The increasing Democratic calls for Menendez to resign also put increased pressure on Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, who has so far stopped short of recommending that Menendez step down. Schumer has not commented on the indictment since saying in a statement Friday that Menendez would step down from the Foreign Relations panel.
On Tuesday evening, Michigan Sen. Debbie Stabenow became the highest-ranking Democrat in leadership to call for his resignation. “Bob is a longtime colleague, and it saddens me to come to this decision,” Stabenow, the No. 3 Democrat, said in a statement.
Other Democratic senators who have called for Menendez to step down included Sherrod Brown of Ohio, Peter Welch of Vermont, Tammy Baldwin of Wisconsin, Jon Tester of Montana, Jacky Rosen of Nevada, Michael Bennet of Colorado, Mark Kelly of Arizona, Mazie Hirono of Hawaii, Martin Heinrich of New Mexico, Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota, Raphael Warnock of Georgia, Kirsten Gillibrand of New York, Maggie Hassan of New Hampshire and Chris Murphy and Richard Blumenthal of Connecticut, John Fetterman and Bob Casey of Pennsylvania and Elizabeth Warren and Ed Markey of Massachusetts.
Independent Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont, who caucuses with Democrats, also called on Menendez to resign.
While the number of Democratic senators calling for Menendez was expected to grow, some said they would not. Sens. Ben Ray Lujan of New Mexico, Catherine Cortez Masto of Nevada and Joe Manchin of West Virginia all said they believe the decision is up to New Jersey voters.
The White House also declined to weigh in. Press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre told reporters aboard Air Force One that “the senator did the right thing by standing down from his chairmanship.” She did not say whether President Joe Biden believed he should resign from his seat, nor would she comment on how his presence would affect public faith in the Senate.
“That is for Senate leadership to speak to, that’s for Sen. Menendez to speak to,” she said.
If Menendez does run for reelection, he will face at least one challenger in a primary: Democratic Rep. Andy Kim announced over the weekend that he will run for the Senate because of the charges against the state’s senior senator.
And Menendez would likely be running without the support of his party. Peters, who urged his resignation Tuesday, is the chairman of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, which provides campaign support to incumbent Democratic senators and challengers.
Peters said in a statement Tuesday evening that Menendez is not able to serve effectively. “As elected officials, the public entrusts us to serve in their best interests and in the best interests of our country,” Peters said.
In court earlier in the day, a judge ordered Hana freed pending trial on $300,000 cash bail and a $5 million bond.
Hana’s lawyer, Lawrence Lustberg, said after the hearing that his client is innocent and has a long friendship with Nadine Menendez that predated her marriage to the senator by years. “He has pleaded not guilty because he is not guilty,” Lustberg said.
Prosecutors say Hana gave the senator’s wife, Nadine Menendez, a “low-show or no-show job,” paid $23,000 toward her home mortgage, wrote $30,000 checks to her consulting company, promised her envelopes of cash, sent her exercise equipment and bought some of the gold bars that were found in the couple’s home.
Hana also sought the senator’s help in fending off criticism from U.S. agricultural officials after Egyptian officials gave his company a lucrative monopoly over certifying that imported meat met religious standards, the indictment said.