As trial looms, Menendez’s pursuit of normal faces fresh challenges
September 1, 2017
Much as he has managed since he was indicted in 2015, U.S. Sen. Bob Menendez projected an image of business as usual this week as he rallied on behalf of immigrant groups, accepted an award for healthcare advocacy and held policy meetings with constituents.
His staff says things will continue that way even as the New Jersey Democrat goes on trial next week for bribery and other charges that threaten to finish his storied political career.
“He intends on maintaining his schedule to the extent possible and he’s focused on serving the people of New Jersey,” Menendez spokesman Steven Sandberg said this week. “He hasn’t stopped fighting for them and he won’t stop now.”
But as the trial gets closer, Republican operatives are trying to make life harder for Menendez. This week, they stepped up efforts to push negative news about him in front of reporters and dialed up the pressure on his Democratic colleagues.
“Democrats still won’t say whether they’ll call on Menendez to resign immediately if he’s convicted,” read one email from the communications arm of the Republican National Committee. “Even Harry Reid is involved in the felony bribery and corruption trial,” read another, referring to the retired Democratic senator from Nevada.
Menendez’s legal ordeal could receive even more unwanted attention in the coming weeks if he is forced to choose between attending his own trial and casting a potentially key vote on any of the pressing issues before the Senate in September. Congress has only 12 session days scheduled this month to raise the debt ceiling and pass a spending plan to prevent a government shutdown, in addition to renewing the National Flood Insurance Program and voting on a multi-billion dollar aid package following Hurricane Harvey.
Menendez’s legal team asked the U.S. district judge presiding over his case, William H. Walls, to adjust the trial schedule so he can be in Washington for crucial votes, arguing that members of Congress “have a constitutional right to be an active part of every minute of their trial, but they also have constitutional obligations to serve the people who elected them.”
Walls denied the request in a decision published online Friday. Before the decision was announced, Menendez told reporters he was not sure what he would do if he had to face that choice. Being absent from court could give a negative impression to jurors, who would not be told the reason for the absence.
“I’ll come to that conclusion when it’s necessary,” Menendez said. “I’ll judge by the individual issue and the gravity of it and if my vote will make a difference.”
For now, Menendez remains slightly more popular than unpopular in the eyes of New Jersey voters, although the number of voters who are either uncertain or haven’t heard of him are on the rise, according to a Rutgers-Eagleton poll released Thursday. That poll found that 28 percent of voters had a favorable opinion of Menendez versus 25 percent who had an unfavorable one. That is worse than that of U.S. Sen. Cory Booker, D-N.J., who was well-regarded by 54 percent of voters, but better than Republican Gov. Chris Christie, who received a record-low favorability rating of 16 percent.
According to the same poll, New Jersey voters disapprove of the job President Donald Trump is doing by a margin of 65 to 30 percent.
Menendez’s trial is set to begin Wednesday and could last for months. Menendez and co-defendant Salomon Melgen, a Florida eye specialist, are accused of having a seven-year corrupt agreement through which Menendez received luxury travel and more than $700,000 in contributions as bribes to use his office to advance Melgen’s personal and business interests.
Asked this week if he would consider cutting a plea deal with prosecutors, Menendez laughed.
“Uh, no,” he said. “And I am going to be exonerated.”
Regardless of the outcome, the trial stands to put Menendez under enormous stress. Already this week, the government filed a pre-trial brief, unsolicited by the court, that presented the accusations against Menendez in fresh detail and provided rhetorically ripe material for negative news stories.
Menendez attorney Raymond Brown responded with a letter to Walls complaining that the brief “seemed designed solely to generate adverse pretrial publicity for the defendants” and could make it more difficult to seat a full jury.
Brown’s letter noted that after a jury apparently had been selected last week, one juror was excused, and a replacement was going to have to be chosen before the trial begins. The potential juror pool was not told to avoid reading about the case, Brown said.
“The prosecutors include new, irrelevant and inflamatory ‘facts,’ describing which movie stars spend time at Casa de Campo or at a hotel in Paris,” Brown wrote, referring to places Menendez went at Melgen’s expense, according to the indictment.
“Moreover, under the guise of anticipated evidentiary issues, the prosecutors highlight salacious issues they posit could come into the case,” he wrote. “The gratuitous filing will make it harder to fill the remaining jury spot.”
Michael Koenig, a former federal prosecutor and co-chair of the law firm Hinckley Allen’s white collar defense group, said that going about business as usual is often the healthiest approach for defendants heading into a trial. In Menendez’s case, he added, it may also be a way for the senator to counter the government’s narrative about his guilt.
“The government has been consistently portraying him in a negative light,” Koenig said. “He has every right to portray himself in a positive light. And by going about his elected official duties, that’s all he’s doing.”
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