WASHINGTON (AP) — New Jersey Sen. Robert Menendez remained defiant in the face of federal bribery charges on Thursday, telling a room full of his Senate Democratic colleagues that he has no plans to resign.
Speaking behind closed doors at the Capitol, Menendez echoed his previous public statements in response to last week’s indictment, according to a person who attended the private luncheon and requested anonymity to discuss it. Menendez has repeatedly denied wrongdoing and pledged that he will beat the charges that he worked to secretly advance Egyptian interests and pressured prosecutors to help his friends.
More than half of Democratic senators have said Menendez should step down. But none of them asked questions after he spoke and vowed to remain in office, according to several senators leaving the meeting.
But Menendez’s remarks also appeared to win him no new allies, further isolating the New Jersey senator as his colleagues and Democratic leaders have wrestled over how to respond to the indictment alleging that he traded off his Senate position to enrich himself with cash, gold bars and a luxury car.
“My mind is not changed,” said Sen. Michael Bennet, D-Colo., who has called on Menendez to step down. He declined to give any additional details about the meeting.
“I don’t think there’s anything happy about his situation,” said Rhode Island Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse.
“He was pretty clear” that he’s not resigning, said Maryland Sen. Ben Cardin, who is taking over for Menendez as chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. Menendez was forced to step down after he was indicted due to caucus rules.
Menendez, who pleaded not guilty to the charges on Wednesday, did not tell his colleagues whether he will run for re-election next year. At least one Democrat, New Jersey Rep. Andy Kim, has already jumped into the primary, and the head of Senate Democrats’ campaign arm, Michigan Sen. Gary Peters, has called on Menendez to resign — signaling that he may not receive campaign assistance traditionally available to incumbents.
Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., hinted at the uncertainty of Menendez’s political future when he announced on Wednesday that Menendez would speak at Thursday’s meeting. “We’ll see what happens after that,” Schumer said.
But Schumer, who has not called on Menendez to resign, would not comment as he left the meeting.
Menendez also declined to elaborate. “They heard my message,” he said of his colleagues. He reiterated he will not step aside.
The New Jersey senator 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.
Menendez, who was released on a $100,000 bond Wednesday, has said 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.
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.”
Booker would not comment on Menendez’s remarks after Thursday’s caucus lunch.
West Virginia Sen. Joe Manchin was one of the few senators who did comment after the meeting, telling reporters that he would still give Menendez the benefit of the doubt.
“The rule of law is for all of us,” Manchin said. “He is going to vigorously defend himself.”
Associated Press videojournalist Nathan Ellgren contributed to this report.