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Robert Menendez 'Put His Power Up For Sale,' Prosecutors Say in Senator's Trial

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Senator Robert Menendez, seen leaving Federal District Court on Wednesday, was accused by prosecutors of putting his power "up for sale," trading favors involving Egypt and New Jersey businessmen for gold bars, cash and a Mercedes-Benz convertible.Credit...Hiroko Masuike/The New York Times

The corruption trial of Senator Robert Menendez, a powerful New Jersey Democrat, spun into motion in Manhattan on Wednesday, with combative opening statements and an extraordinary claim by the defense.

Speaking directly to the jury, a U.S. prosecutor asserted that Mr. Menendez "put his power up for sale," trading favors involving Egypt and New Jersey businessmen for gold bars, cash and a Mercedes-Benz convertible. But it was a lawyer for Mr. Menendez who shook the courtroom awake, piling blame on the senator's wife, Nadine Menendez.

Mr. Menendez, 70, betrayed little emotion as he watched the opening statements from the courtroom, where he is facing some of the gravest charges ever leveled against a sitting U.S. senator. He has pleaded not guilty.

He is being tried alongside two of the businessmen, Fred Daibes and Wael Hana. Prosecutors have also charged Ms. Menendez, but her trial was delayed until July for health reasons.

Here are five takeaways from the senator's third day on trial:

Prosecutors have spun a dizzying set of accusations against Mr. Menendez, filing four rounds of charges that involve a halal meat monopoly, a Qatari sheikh and the inner workings of the U.S. government. All of it could easily confuse jurors.

So laying out a road map for their case, they offered the panel a far simpler view: "This case is about a public official who put greed first," said Lara Pomerantz, an assistant U.S. attorney. "A public official who put his own interests above the duty of the people, who put his power up for sale."

What the jury needed to understand, she insisted, was that favors were granted by Mr. Menendez, including a letter ghost written to help Egypt and calls to pressure important government officials. In exchange, the couple amassed hundreds of thousands of dollars in cash, bars of gold and much more, with Ms. Menendez as a "go-between."

Mr. Menendez's lawyer, Avi Weitzman, used his first words to the jury to flatly deny that arrangement. But the heart of his defense was a head-turning proposition: Do not confuse the senator with his wife.

Mr. Menendez, his lawyer said, was "an American patriot," the son of working-class immigrants who made it to Congress. All those instances of Mr. Menendez purportedly abusing his office to help a foreign power or New Jersey businessmen? They showed a senator "doing his job," Mr. Weitzman said, asserting that the government had found no record of Mr. Menendez negotiating bribes.

He did not say the same of Ms. Menendez, who had come late into the senator's life and concealed her financial burdens and communications from him, according to the lawyer. Mr. Weitzman did not outright say that Ms. Menendez accepted bribes. But if she did, he wanted to make it clear that his client did not know "what she was asking others to give her" — especially all that gold.

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A handout photo made available by the U.S. attorney's office in Manhattan shows two gold bars federal agents found while searching the home of Senator Menendez.Credit...EPA, via Shutterstock

To make his point, Mr. Weitzman displayed photographs of a closet that he said belonged to Ms. Menendez. It was there, in her private quarters, he disclosed, that the F.B.I. found the gold bars and cash with Mr. Daibes' fingerprints.

The senator did know that his wife had some gold, but assumed it was from her wealthy family of Persian rug dealers, the lawyer said. When Mr. Menendez repeatedly searched for the price of gold on Google, the lawyer said, he was looking to see how much money Ms. Menendez could generate from that family gift — not to cash out a bribe.

"He did not know of the gold bars that existed in that closet," he said.

Likewise, Mr. Weitzman said Mr. Menendez had been in the dark about how Ms. Menendez got the funds to purchase a $60,000 Mercedes-Benz convertible. In a guilty plea, another New Jersey businessman admitted that he gave Ms. Menendez the car "in return for influencing a United States senator to stop a criminal investigation."

The case against Mr. Menendez could hardly be more serious. It has already made history: Mr. Menendez is the first senator to be indicted in more than one bribery case. (The first ended in a mistrial in 2017.)

But as his trial opened this week in Lower Manhattan, it was hard to escape the conclusion that it was being overshadowed by the state courthouse just a few hundred yards away. That is where, thanks to a quirk of timing, former President Donald J. Trump is in the midst of his hush-money trial.

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President Donald Trump's hush-money trial is overshadowing the Menendez case for now.Credit...Dave Sanders for The New York Times

The first ever trial of a former president has inspired wall-to-wall cable news coverage. Unlike the Menendez case, it includes nationally known witnesses, like Stormy Daniels and Michael Cohen. And it has attracted a parade of high-profile visitors to buck up Mr. Trump, including the speaker of the House.

All of it is probably good news for Mr. Menendez and his party, which is vulnerable to political attacks after allowing him to continue serving in the Senate under indictment.

The case has proceeded unusually quickly since the government first brought charges in September 2023. As for the trial, do not expect a verdict anytime soon.

Prosecutors have said they may take as many as six weeks to lay out the tangled web of corruption they say surrounded Mr. Menendez. When Judge Sidney H. Stein read a list of dozens of potential witnesses (including several sitting senators), he informed jurors they would be likely to hear testimony in Spanish and Arabic.

The defense has indicated it will then take another one to two weeks, setting up a verdict sometime around July 4. Except for odd days off, Mr. Menendez will be stuck in the courtroom the whole time, depriving Democrats of a key vote in the Senate, where they control a spare 51-to-49 majority.

Maria Cramer and Maia Coleman contributed reporting.

May 15, 2024, 5:32 p.m. ET

May 15, 2024, 5:32 p.m. ET

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Avi Weitzman, the lawyer for Senator Robert Menendez, described him as a dedicated legislator and "American patriot," who was not taking bribes but doing the everyday job of a legislator. Credit...Dave Sanders for The New York Times

When Senator Robert Menendez reached out to the New Jersey attorney general about an investigation into Latino truckers, he was looking into concerns of discrimination, his lawyer, Avi Weitzman, said.

When he pressed for Egypt to get additional aid and weapons from the United States, he was engaging in diplomacy, Mr. Weitzman said.

And when a real estate developer, Fred Daibes, asked for help with a stalled project, the senator acted on behalf of a constituent, Mr. Weitzman said during opening statements on Wednesday at the beginning of the New Jersey Democrat's corruption trial.

"In short, the evidence will show Bob was doing his job and he was doing it right," Mr. Weitzman told the jury.

In an opening that lasted more than an hour, Weitzman referred to the senator as "Bob," describing him as a dedicated legislator and "American patriot" who was not taking bribes but doing the everyday job of a legislator.

Mr. Weitzman, in a telling moment that indicated how the defense would present its case to the jury, said that Mr. Menendez had no idea that the gold bars found in his wife's closet had come from Mr. Daibes.

Ms. Menendez is being tried separately in July. She is accused of acting as a go-between for Mr. Menendez, Egyptian intelligence officials and businessmen, including Mr. Daibes, who were seeking political favors from the senator.

But Mr. Weitzman said that Ms. Menendez had financial troubles she was trying to keep from her husband. Her dealings with New Jersey businessmen like Mr. Daibes had nothing to do with Mr. Menendez, Mr. Weitzman said.

Mr. Weitzman suggested that it was easy for Ms. Menendez to keep her husband in the dark about her "financial challenges."

The senator and his wife kept separate lives — not even sharing a phone plan — and the senator adored Ms. Menendez, whom he found "dazzling" and began dating in 2018, Mr. Weitzman said.

She was beautiful, tall and spoke four languages, Mr. Weitzman said: "Bob fell for her."

May 15, 2024, 5:13 p.m. ET

May 15, 2024, 5:13 p.m. ET

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Federal District Court in Manhattan on Wednesday. On the first day of Senator Robert Menendez's corruption trial, prosecutors accused him of being as corrupt as he was powerful. Credit...Hiroko Masuike/The New York Times

In her opening statement, Lara Pomerantz, an assistant U.S. attorney, used short sentences and relatable language to guide jurors through the complicated framework of the bribery charges against Senator Robert Menendez of New Jersey.

She accused Mr. Menendez of being as corrupt as he was powerful.

"This was not politics as usual," Ms. Pomerantz said of Mr. Menendez, a Democrat who until last year led the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. "This was politics for profit. This was a United States senator on the take."

More than once she turned and gestured toward Mr. Menendez, who was seated behind her, flanked by his lawyers.

Mr. Menendez, 70, leaned forward attentively, but showed no obvious emotion, his hand at times resting on his chin and over his mouth.

Prosecutors have charged Mr. Menendez and his wife, Nadine Menendez, with a multifaceted bribery scheme that lasted from 2018 to 2023. The senator, Ms. Pomerantz told jurors, steered aid to Egypt — a country she said "was hungry" for American support. He meddled in criminal cases involving businessmen in New Jersey, Ms. Pomerantz said.

And, with Mr. Menendez's backing, the government of Egypt "dropped a lucrative monopoly" in the lap of friend, who, she said, had no experience in the industry.

In exchange, the senator was given bribes of gold bars, cash and a luxury car, she said.

"For years," Ms. Pomerantz said, "Robert Menendez betrayed the people he was supposed to serve by taking bribes."

May 15, 2024, 4:47 p.m. ET

May 15, 2024, 4:47 p.m. ET

If these opening arguments are any indication of the trial ahead, it is going to be long, complex and fascinating. We already got privileged looks into the inner workings of government and the private life of one of the nation's most powerful elected officials.

May 15, 2024, 4:47 p.m. ET

May 15, 2024, 4:47 p.m. ET

So that concludes a very lively day of opening statements. The government leveled major charges at Senator Menendez, asserting that he "put his power up for sale." His lawyer denied the senator ever accepted a bribe and pinned blame on his wife, Nadine Menendez.

May 15, 2024, 4:42 p.m. ET

May 15, 2024, 4:42 p.m. ET

The trial returns from a break, but Judge Stein unexpectedly calls it a day. Lawyers for Wael Hana and Fred Daibes still have to deliver opening statements, and the parties agreed to pick them up tomorrow.

May 15, 2024, 4:35 p.m. ET

May 15, 2024, 4:35 p.m. ET

Judge Stein now lectures Weitzman, who tried to mention his twin and his grandparents who survived the Holocaust to connect their tales with Menendez's troubles. "Your personal story is not for this jury," Judge Stein says.

May 15, 2024, 4:35 p.m. ET

May 15, 2024, 4:35 p.m. ET

After a little more than an hour, the opening statement from Senator Menendez's defense team has wrapped. Jurors will hear next from lawyers for his co-defendants, Wael Hana and Fred Daibes. But first, Judge Stein says the court will take a brief break.

May 15, 2024, 4:34 p.m. ET

May 15, 2024, 4:34 p.m. ET

Weitzman has gone on for more than an hour in his opening statement, prompting Judge Stein to ask how much longer he has to go. "A page and a half," Weitzman replies. "You have a man's lifetime of public service in your hands," he says. He tells the jury the case will affect Menendez for the rest of his life, prompting an objection from prosecutors. Judge Stein sustains it and explains to the jury that they are not to worry about punishment. That's his job.

May 15, 2024, 4:33 p.m. ET

May 15, 2024, 4:33 p.m. ET

The trial has now veered into a history lesson on the development of New Jersey's waterfront across the Hudson River from New York City. Prosecutors say Menendez intervened with Qatar to help Daibes land a major investment in a real estate project on the waterfront, but Weitzman is disputing that Menendez played any improper role. He said the senator was merely carrying out normal foreign policy and his actions had no effect on the investment.

May 15, 2024, 4:30 p.m. ET

May 15, 2024, 4:30 p.m. ET

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Robert Menendez greeted supporters as he arrived at court in Newark in 2017. The case ended in a mistrial.Credit...Seth Wenig/Associated Press

Wednesday was the first day of the federal corruption trial against Senator Robert Menendez of New Jersey, but the sight of Mr. Menendez at the defense table likely evoked images of an earlier court proceeding: Mr. Menendez's 2017 corruption trial.

Long before Donald J. Trump became the first former U.S. president to be criminally prosecuted, Mr. Menendez, a Democrat, made history as the first sitting U.S. senator in 36 years to face a federal bribery trial over what prosecutors described as a scheme to trade political favors for lavish gifts.

Mr. Menendez was accused in 2015 of doing favors for a friend, Dr. Salomon Melgen, a wealthy eye doctor from Florida, in exchange for gifts, including rides on a private plane, and political donations. He was charged with 12 counts of corruption, including six counts of bribery and three counts of honest services fraud. Dr. Melgen was also accused in the case and tried alongside Mr. Menendez.

The trial, which lasted more than two months in late 2017, centered on whether Mr. Menendez's friendship with Dr. Melgen had crossed a legal line, raising questions about intent, friendship and official government acts.

Closely watched in Washington for its implications on political donations, the trial in Newark saw appearances from several high-profile figures, including Senator Cory Booker, another New Jersey Democrat, and Senator Lindsey Graham, a Republican from South Carolina, both of whom testified as character witnesses for Mr. Menendez.

During closing arguments, Abbe Lowell, a lawyer for Mr. Menendez, called the charges "a lot of hooey over nothing," saying that there was "a Grand Canyon" between the evidence presented and the accusations leveled against the senator. Peter Koski, the lead prosecutor, in his closing statements rebutted: "Friendship and bribery can coexist, ladies and gentlemen."

After less than two weeks of deliberations, jurors said they were unable to reach a verdict, leaving the presiding judge, William H. Walls, to declare a mistrial. One juror told reporters afterward that 10 of the 12 jurors had supported finding Mr. Menendez not guilty.

In January 2018, prosecutors announced that they intended to retry Mr. Menendez, but less than a week later, Judge Walls acquitted Mr. Menendez and Dr. Melgen of seven of the 18 charges they faced.

The Justice Department dismissed all the remaining charges against the senator a few days later, leaving Mr. Menendez free to return to Congress and begin campaigning for re-election.

May 15, 2024, 4:29 p.m. ET

May 15, 2024, 4:29 p.m. ET

Weitzman is describing Menendez's actions as those of a concerned legislator who had gotten complaints from constituents about unfair treatment. He went to New Jersey Attorney General Gurbir Grewal about the state's investigation into Latino truckers working for Jose Uribe because he worried there was discrimination involved, Weitzman said.

May 15, 2024, 4:29 p.m. ET

May 15, 2024, 4:29 p.m. ET

He went to Philip R. Sellinger, the U.S. Attorney for New Jersey, about an investigation into Fred Daibes because he was concerned about a conflict of interest: Sellinger was involved personally in a separate lawsuit involving Daibes, Weitzman said. "Bob acted lawfully, appropriately and entirely for the benefit of New Jerseyans," Weitzman said.

May 15, 2024, 4:23 p.m. ET

May 15, 2024, 4:23 p.m. ET

Avi Weitzman, the lawyer for Menendez, has been speaking for about an hour now. He has just turned to the final facet of the government's case: The charge that Senator Menendez tried to install a favorable U.S. attorney in New Jersey to help protect Fred Daibes in exchange for bribes. Weitzman again says there was no bribe, and that Menendez was merely doing due diligence because he worried one of the candidates for the prosecutor post would not be fair.

May 15, 2024, 4:18 p.m. ET

May 15, 2024, 4:18 p.m. ET

Weitzman is now discussing the $60,000 Mercedez-Benz that one of the New Jersey businessmen has confessed to buying Nadine Menendez as a bribe. The lawyer says that the senator initially assumed she had bought it herself.

May 15, 2024, 4:12 p.m. ET

May 15, 2024, 4:12 p.m. ET

Judge Stein just gently chastised Weitzman for his presentation: "Stick to the evidence sir, not the sermonizing."

May 15, 2024, 4:12 p.m. ET

May 15, 2024, 4:12 p.m. ET

The defense is deep into the weeds now, underscoring just how tangled aspects of this case are. Weitzman is confirming that Menendez contacted a U.S.D.A. official about a halal meat monopoly run by the Egyptian-American businessman accused of bribing him. But the lawyer says he will present evidence showing that the call was all above board.

May 15, 2024, 4:11 p.m. ET

May 15, 2024, 4:11 p.m. ET

If you're just joining us, Avi Weitzman, the lawyer for Menendez, is giving his opening statement. He is delving into the government's allegation that Menendez helped Wael Hana, a friend of his wife, get a monopoly on certifying Halal meat imported into Egypt from the United States. But it's Egyptian officials who decide who gets that business, not a U.S. senator, Weitzman said. "For whatever reason" the Egyptian government chose Hana's business, Weitzman said.

May 15, 2024, 4:05 p.m. ET

May 15, 2024, 4:05 p.m. ET

Weitzman says there is plenty of evidence to contradict the charge that Menendez was acting as a foreign agent. For example, at the same time that he was supposedly taking bribes to help Egyptian officials, Menendez was publicly "taking them to task and he is telling them that they need to do better on human rights," Weitzman says.

May 15, 2024, 3:59 p.m. ET

May 15, 2024, 3:59 p.m. ET

Senator Menendez's lawyer, Avi Weitzman, is now pivoting. He is explaining to the jury that many of the senator's actions in the case amount to "constituent services" carried out in the interests of the people of New Jersey. He is preparing to explain that Menendez was simply trying to help some of those constituents — like Daibes and Uribe — right a wrong.

May 15, 2024, 3:59 p.m. ET

May 15, 2024, 3:59 p.m. ET

Weitzman adds that there is nothing criminal about helping constituents who are also friends of his or his wife. "You may not like it, but it's not illegal," he said.

May 15, 2024, 3:57 p.m. ET

May 15, 2024, 3:57 p.m. ET

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Many senators have been silent about Senator Robert Menendez's case.Credit...Kenny Holston/The New York Times

Senator Robert Menendez is facing some of the most serious charges ever leveled against a sitting American lawmaker. But as he goes on trial in Manhattan this week, his colleagues back in Washington could hardly seem less interested.

The case briefly upended the Capitol back in September, when Mr. Menendez, a New Jersey Democrat, was first indicted in a bribery case accusing him of covertly aiding Egypt and throttling criminal inquiries at home. Dozens of senators called on him to resign.

But after Mr. Menendez brusquely rebuffed them, Democrats and Republicans in the clubby Senate largely moved on. Most have had little to say about the case since, leaving Mr. Menendez free to continue his congressional work as he fights to prove his innocence.

Fellow Democrats have offered explanations. They point out that Mr. Menendez was stripped of his committee chairmanship after the charges, and that he has all but acknowledged his political career is over.

Many — including Senator Chuck Schumer, Democrat of New York and the majority leader — have defended Mr. Menendez's right to clear his name. (The senator was indicted once before but never convicted because of a hung jury; this time, he has pleaded not guilty.)

Perhaps more surprisingly in a capital where partisans are typically eager to weaponize corruption accusations, Republican senators have mostly given a pass to Mr. Menendez, a well-liked deal-maker who has spent three decades in Congress, and to his party.

"I'm really glad he's not a Republican," Senator Mitch McConnell, Republican of Kentucky and the minority leader, said on Wednesday.

The tone could yet ramp up as prosecutors air their case in the coming weeks. But with a war in the Middle East consuming the Senate and former President Donald J. Trump's criminal trial continuing in New York, there are few signs that senators are eager to talk more about Mr. Menendez — except one.

Senator John Fetterman, Democrat of Pennsylvania, has tried unsuccessfully to persuade the chamber to expel Mr. Menendez and expressed frustration that the New Jersey senator's colleagues were willing to let him stay.

"I'll never understand how people were OK with that," he said.

Mr. Fetterman said he was particularly alarmed by accusations that Mr. Menendez had worked as a foreign agent for Egypt, accepting gold bars and other lucrative payoffs, at the same time he was serving as chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. He argued that Mr. Menendez deserved his day in court but that the Senate should hold its members to a stricter standard.

"It just gets more and more indefensible why we can't come together and chuck him," he said.

For now, Mr. Menendez's trial will have at least one very tangible impact in the narrowly divided Senate. With Mr. Menendez stuck in a New York courthouse five days a week for the next two months, he will not be able to cast votes or participate in committee hearings.

May 15, 2024, 3:55 p.m. ET

May 15, 2024, 3:55 p.m. ET

Weitzman goes back to Menendez's humble beginnings to explain the presence of the cash found in his house. As the the son of Cuban immigrants who grew up poor in tenement housing in Union City, N.J., Menendez frequently saw his parents storing cash in the house. As an adult, he would do the same, a habit he had for years, Weitzman said. Some of the bills found in the house were not even in circulation anymore, which Weitzman said contradicts the prosecution's claims that this was cash Menendez got from the other defendants.

May 15, 2024, 3:52 p.m. ET

May 15, 2024, 3:52 p.m. ET

Now we are onto the cash. The F.B.I. found more than $400,000 of it when they raided the couple's home. Menendez's lawyer says the cash belonged to the senator and was amassed over three decades in $400-$500 increments because of trauma in his past.

May 15, 2024, 3:54 p.m. ET

May 15, 2024, 3:54 p.m. ET

In a setback for the senator on this point, Judge Stein issued a ruling yesterday precluding his lawyers from presenting testimony from a psychiatrist who had evaluated Menendez. Her testimony had been expected to address the cash authorities found stockpiled in Menendez's home.

May 15, 2024, 3:52 p.m. ET

May 15, 2024, 3:52 p.m. ET

Menendez, as a sitting senator, had an obligation to reveal all his assets in a financial disclosure form, as well as his spouse's. When he learned about the gold bars he contacted Senate officials to tell them, Weitzman says. He did this before he even knew there was a federal investigation into him, Weitzman said. "He's not trying to hide his assets," he said.

May 15, 2024, 3:49 p.m. ET

May 15, 2024, 3:49 p.m. ET

If you are just joining us, Avi Weitzman, a defense lawyer for Senator Menendez, is offering his opening statement. The lawyer has said his client never took bribes or broke the law. He is laying blame for the gold bars that authorities found in the couple's home on Nadine Menendez, the senator's wife.

May 15, 2024, 3:45 p.m. ET

May 15, 2024, 3:45 p.m. ET

Weitzman, a personable lawyer who is peppering his statement with jokes and details about himself ("I'm a twin"), makes another quip. He asks the jury if they know about "Where's Waldo?", the fictional character in the red-and-white hat who hides in large crowds. The prosecution objects. Weitzman continues: the evidence will show that while Nadine Menendez was trying to resolve her financial problems and meeting with Daibes, Hana and Uribe, Menendez was nowhere to be found. "Where's Bob?" Weitzmann says. "He was doing his job."

May 15, 2024, 3:44 p.m. ET

May 15, 2024, 3:44 p.m. ET

Avi Weitzman, Menendez's lawyer, is taking aim at another key piece of evidence raised by the prosecution: the senator's repeated Google searches for the price of gold. He says this was not related to any bribes, but carried out because his wife's family had long owned a lot of gold, including kilogram gold bars.

May 15, 2024, 3:43 p.m. ET

May 15, 2024, 3:43 p.m. ET

Weitzman has now leaned in hard to what is likely to be a central pillar of Menendez's defense: He was fooled by a beautiful woman. "The evidence will show that Nadine was hiding her financial challenges from Bob," he said. "She kept him in the dark about what she was asking others to give her."

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