Democrats are beginning to speak out after Sen. Bob Menendez (D-NJ) and his wife were accused of taking bribes of gold bars, cash, and a luxury car to help the government of Egypt and businessmen in New Jersey in a new indictment, with some even calling on the senator to resign his seat.
Gov. Phillip Murphy (D-NJ), a close Democratic ally, called on Menendez to resign on Friday, the first signal that the floodgates could begin to open, a significantly different tone from Menendez’s prior legal problems in which Democrats stood by the New Jersey senator.
After Menendez’s April 2015 indictment, the senator had the support of the majority of the state party. His campaign website featured an “I stand with Bob” logo while Democratic lawmakers defended him, specifically Sen. Cory Booker (D-NJ). But the tone appears to have shifted.
“The allegations in the indictment against Sen. Menendez and four other defendants are deeply disturbing,” the Democratic governor said in a statement Friday.
Earlier in the day on Friday, Reps. Dean Phillips (D-MN), Mikie Sherrill (D-NJ), Andy Kim (D-NJ), State Assembly Speaker Craig Coughlin, and state Democratic Party Chairman Leroy Jones spoke out, calling on Menendez to resign, a sign that New Jersey Democrats may be signaling growing trouble for the senator who is up for reelection next year.
The tide appears to be turning for national Democrats as well. Former Attorney General Eric Holder, who has remained a major figure in the party, called for the senator to step down from his position.
“As both a leader in the Democratic Party & the former Attorney General and given the nature of the charges, I call upon Senator Menendez to resign,” Holder said on X, formerly Twitter. “The nation will be better served if he steps aside and allows a transition to occur that will best serve the people of New Jersey.”
The new indictment alleges the New Jersey senator and his wife took bribes in exchange for favors for the Egyptian government and allegedly “pressured” a U.S. agricultural official to protect an exclusive contract for a New Jersey businessman to be the exclusive purveyor of halal meat to Egypt. Photos in the indictment showed gold bars and almost half a million dollars of cash stuffed into clothing labeled with the senator’s name.
“I personally think this is the straw that broke the camel’s back, and it’s only a matter of time before Menendez is going to need to resign,” said a Democratic strategist in Washington, speaking on the condition of anonymity in an effort to reflect candidly on the situation. “This is significantly more damning and easier to understand than the 2015 indictment.”
The senior senator from New Jersey has previously faced corruption charges. A 2015 indictment ultimately ended in a mistrial in 2018 after a jury failed to reach a verdict on all counts. The prior charges were surrounding his relationship with a friend and Democratic donor, after there were allegations Menendez used his Senate office to promote the donor’s interests.
Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY) confirmed Friday that Menendez will be stepping down as chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. Rules in the Senate Democratic caucus require Menendez to step down. Sen Ben Cardin (D-MD) is expected to replace the chairman, which also did between 2015 and 2018 when Menendez faced federal charges and his trial.
“Sen. Menendez has rightly decided to step down temporarily from his position as Chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee until the matter has been resolved,” Schumer said in a statement released Friday afternoon.
Previously, Menendez stepped down from his perch on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee in 2015 when he was facing the prior indictment. Schumer defended Menendez after the latest indictment on Friday, emphasizing he should be treated with the presumption of innocence.
“Bob Menendez has been a dedicated public servant and is always fighting hard for the people of New Jersey,” he said. “He has a right to due process and a fair trial.”
Schumer could ultimately ask the senator to leave the committee altogether after the indictment charges Menendez with using his role as the chairman of the powerful panel to benefit himself personally. It is unclear what the Senate majority leader intends to do next.
The indictment comes as the New Jersey senator faces reelection in 2024. Democratic leaders say the latest developments make them fear the New Jersey seat could flip to a Republican for the first time since 1972 in what should be a safe Democratic seat.
“Our majority is on the line right now, and unfortunately, the senator is just a ticking time bomb,” said a Democratic Senate aide, speaking on the condition of anonymity. “Many of us knew there were feds investigating the senator, but I don’t think anyone could have anticipated things would be as serious as they are right now.”
According to the Senate Historical Office, this is the first time in U.S. history that a sitting senator has been indicted twice in two cases that are not related.