Top United States Senator Bob Menendez has pleaded not guilty to corruption charges amid growing calls for his resignation.
Menendez entered his not-guilty plea in federal court in New York on Wednesday, just days after the Democratic Party legislator expressed confidence that he would be exonerated in the criminal case.
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The senator’s four co-defendants – his wife Nadine Menendez and businessmen Jose Uribe, Fred Daibes and Wael Hana – also pleaded not guilty this week.
Dozens of Menendez’s fellow Democrats in Congress have urged him to step down since the indictment was announced late last week, underscoring mounting political pressure against the longtime senator.
So far, Menendez has temporarily withdrawn from his role as chair of the influential Senate Committee on Foreign Relations, but he has vowed to fight the charges against him.
“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,” he told reporters on Monday.
Federal prosecutors have accused Menendez of accepting bribes in exchange for political favours, including advancing Egyptian government interests.
On Wednesday, Dick Durbin, who chairs the Senate Judiciary Committee, joined the mounting calls from US lawmakers demanding Menendez’s resignation.
“Leaders in New Jersey, including the Governor and my Senate colleague Cory Booker, have made it clear that [Senator] Menendez can no longer serve. He should step down,” Durbin wrote in a social media post.
Senator Bernie Sanders on Tuesday called on the chamber’s Ethics Committee to open a probe into the allegations against Menendez.
Sen. Menendez should resign. If he doesn’t, a Senate Ethics Committee investigation must go forward immediately.
— Bernie Sanders (@SenSanders) September 26, 2023
The Department of Justice has alleged that the senator and his wife accepted hundreds of thousands of dollars in bribes from three businessmen in return for using Menendez’s “official position to protect and enrich them and to benefit the Government of Egypt”.
Authorities said they found gold bars and large amounts of cash stuffed in envelopes in Menendez’s home, which they linked to the corruption scheme.
As the top Democrat on the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations, Menendez has had a major influence on US policy towards Egypt, including the approval of weapon sales and aid to Cairo.
In one instance in 2018, according to prosecutors, Menendez texted his wife to inform Hana – the Egyptian-American businessman also charged last week – that he had removed a hold on an arms deal with Egypt.
Hana then forwarded the information to an Egyptian official who replied with a “thumbs up” emoji, the indictment says.
One of the most hawkish Democrats on foreign policy, Menendez is a staunch Israel supporter and an outspoken advocate of sanctions against US adversaries, including Venezuela and Cuba. He also opposed the 2015 multilateral Iran nuclear deal.
House Members from NJ are right to call for Menendez to resign and I join them. House Members from NY are right to call for Santos to resign, and i join them too. A criminal indictment is not the same as a legal judgment but it also doesn’t require suspension of ethical judgment.
— Rep. Jamie Raskin (@RepRaskin) September 27, 2023
Some of his political allies, including pro-Israel groups, have come to his defence since the indictment was announced.
“The pro-Israel community deeply appreciates [Senator] Menendez’s leadership in strengthening the US-Israel relationship,” a spokesperson for the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), a lobby group, told Jewish Insider in a statement.
“Like all Americans, he deserves the presumption of innocence.”
The Department of State has refused to comment on the charges, citing the ongoing legal case.
The White House has acknowledged that the charges are “serious” but stopped short of calling on Menendez to resign from the Senate.