Menendez battles bribery charges as trial kicks off
Sen. Bob Menendez is set to become the first sitting senator in years to face bribery charges in a case that could reshape the Senate.
The New Jersey Democrat will head to court Wednesday to battle charges that he used his influence to help Salomon Melgen, a Florida eye doctor, in exchange for gifts and campaign donations.
The trial — which is expected to last up to two months, not including any potential appeals — could have major ramifications for the Senate, where Republicans have a slim 52-seat majority.
Menendez has denied wrongdoing, predicting the bribery and corruption charges against him will be dropped. But Republicans are wasting no time using the incumbent senator’s trial to put a bull’s-eye on Democrats.
Republicans plan to target vulnerable Democrats up for reelection in 2018 in states won by President Trump as well as potential 2020 Democratic presidential contenders in an effort to make them go on the record about what happens if Menendez is convicted.
“If Democrats don’t call for a convicted felon to resign immediately and instead force taxpayers to keep paying his salary, that’s a debate we’re ready to have,” said Michael Ahrens, a spokesman for the Republican National Committee (RNC).
A spokesman for the National Republican Senatorial Committee added that if Democrats don’t call for Menendez to resign, Senate Republicans’ campaign arm is prepared to “remind folks back home where their senator really stands” ahead of a tough midterm reelection.
The RNC is accelerating efforts to pressure Democrats to distance themselves from Menendez, including by launching a “war room” to track statements from senators and using on-the-ground trackers to try to get Democrats to state their position.
The committee released the first in a series of web videos on Tuesday, and it plans to use Snapchat to target Menendez starting Wednesday around the New Jersey courthouse with a filter that says “Bye Bye Bob Menendez,” according to a version of the filter obtained by The Hill.
Patricia Enright, a spokeswoman for the New Jersey Democrat, noted Menendez has not made a decision about what he will do if he is convicted, saying, “He expects to be exonerated.”
Prosecutors laid out their case against Menendez late last month, alleging that the relationship between Menendez and Melgen began as early as 2006, when Menendez joined the Senate, and continued through early 2013.
They allege that Menendez used his office to perform favors for Melgen, including helping the doctor’s foreign female companions obtain visas to visit the U.S. and advocating for Melgen in a dispute between his ophthalmology practice and the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services.
Menendez’s court battle comes after the Supreme Court vacated former Republican Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell’s federal bribery conviction, laying out a narrow definition of what constituents an “official act.”
Brigid Harrison, a political science and law professor at the New Jersey-based Montclair State University, added in light of the Supreme Court’s decision on McDonnell that there “remains a distinct possibility” the Menendez case could still be dismissed.
“The definition of what constitutes official conduct is crucial,” she said.
Democrats have stayed largely silent ahead of the Menendez trial. A spokesman for Senate Minority Leader Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) said they weren’t going to comment on what happens if Menendez if convicted.
Spokespeople for the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee didn’t respond to a request for comment on their game plan for the trial or if Menendez should step down if convicted.
New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie (R) will be able to appoint an interim successor for Menendez if he is convicted and steps down or is forced out of the Senate before mid-January, when Christie’s term ends.
Such a scenario could leave Republicans with 53 seats in the Senate, where GOP efforts to pass a scaled-down ObamaCare repeal bill fell one vote short in July.
Harrison speculated there would likely be “enormous pressure” on Menendez to remain in the Senate until a new governor is sworn in — even if he is found guilty.
“There is a recognition that Bob Menendez is a swing vote in the Senate, and without that one Democratic U.S. senator, the outcomes of tons of pieces of legislation could be changed,” Harrison said.
Phil Murphy, the Democratic candidate for New Jersey governor, is currently leading in polling and if elected would be in a position to appoint a potential Democratic successor for Menendez early next year.
If Menendez is convicted but doesn’t voluntarily step down, Senate leadership could also try to force him out.
A spokesman for Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) declined to comment, noting that a decision about trying to expel Menendez was a hypothetical.
But the move would be historic for a chamber that last formally expelled a member in 1862, according to the Senate Historical Office. Senate committees have voted since then to expel members, but the full Senate either didn’t act or the member stepped down. That move would require the support of at least 15 Democrats and every Republican.
Though Menendez stepped down in 2015 as ranking member of the Foreign Relations Committee over the bribery charges, he’s maintained a high profile and pledged that he will run for reelection next year.
Democrats in the state are largely remaining on the sidelines as they wait out Menendez’s trial.
Harrison added that he “continues to enjoy strong support” within New Jersey.
“Bob Menendez has developed a reputation as being fair and honest in the state of New Jersey,” she said. “I think that reputation has given him a lot of latitude among the powers that be in the Democratic Party.”