NEW YORK — Sen. Bob Menendez pleaded not guilty in Manhattan federal court Monday to a charge he secretly acted as an agent for the government of Egypt during his tenure as the chair of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.
The New Jersey Democrat, 69, appeared before the federal judge for less than 15 minutes. He entered his not guilty plea and then ignored questions from dozens of reporters stationed outside the courthouse.
Menendez wore a navy blue pinstripe suit and a salmon tie, and walked straight toward a black car waiting for him upon exiting the federal building.
He held a stern, expressionless face throughout the proceeding and appeared without his wife, Nadine Menendez, who was with him in federal court in September during his arraignment for conspiracy to commit bribery, conspiracy to commit honest services fraud and conspiracy to commit extortion.
In that first indictment, prosecutors said the senator and his wife accepted hundreds of thousands of dollars in bribes and payments, as well as gold and a Mercedes-Benz, in exchange for him using his office to help three businesspeople and the Egyptian government. Menendez, his wife and the three businesspeople pleaded not guilty to the original charges.
The indictment drew swift condemnation from New Jersey’s top Democrats, and over half the Senate called for his resignation. But Menendez has refused to step down, only giving up his position as chair of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.
Then prosecutors unveiled a superseding indictment about two weeks ago alleging Menendez, his wife and one of the businesspeople charged in September, Wael Hana, acted as unregistered foreign agents.
The indictment said that Menendez, as Senate Foreign Relations chair, “promised to take and took a series of acts on behalf of Egypt, including on behalf of Egyptian military and intelligence officials.” The charging document also said Nadine Menendez and Wael Hana “communicated requests and directives from Egyptian officials” to the senator.
In May 2019, for example, the three met with an unnamed Egyptian intelligence official and discussed an American citizen who’d been injured in a 2015 airstrike by the Egyptian military, according to the indictment. A week later, the Egyptian official told Hana that if Menendez helped resolve the matter, he’s “sit very comfortably.” Hana told the official to “consider it done.” The official then sent a statement from the American citizen’s attorney, which Hana sent to Nadine Menendez. She then forwarded it to her husband, according to the indictment.
She had arranged another meeting between Bob Menendez and the Egyptian official in 2020 about a Nile River dam regarded as one of the most important policy issues for Egypt, according to the indictment. Menendez wrote a letter to top administration officials urging them “to significantly increase the State Department’s engagement on negotiations surrounding the [dam],” the indictment said.
Menendez, who withstood bribery charges in a 2017 mistrial, has insisted he is innocent of the latest charges and that prosecutors have targeted him. Still, the latest accusations have put him in the greatest political peril of his nearly 50-year career.
Although he has refused to resign his seat, he has not said whether he will run again next year. Given the deep drop-off in support back home for him in New Jersey, though, it’s difficult to see how he could run a viable reelection campaign in a presidential year and potentially risk what should be a safe Democratic seat. Menendez has hinted he is aware of that reality, telling reporters this month,” I’m not going to jeopardize any seat in New Jersey under any circumstances.”