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Menendez Delivers First Remarks Since Bribery Charges. Aired 11:30a-12p ET

Aired September 25, 2023 - 11:30   ET




SEN. BOB MENENDEZ (D-NJ): The court of public opinion is no substitute for our revered justice system. We cannot set aside the presumption of innocence for political expediency when the harm is irrevocable. To those who have rushed to judgment, you have done so based on a limited set of facts framed by the prosecution to be as salacious as possible.

Remember, prosecutors get it wrong sometimes. Sadly, I know that. Instead of waiting for all the facts to be presented, others have rushed to judgment because they see a political opportunity for themselves or those around them.

All I humbly ask for in this moment, in my colleagues in Congress, the elected leaders, and the advocates of New Jersey that I have worked with for years, as well as each person who calls New Jersey home, is to pause and allow for all the facts to be presented. Second. My long record on Egypt, one fact is indisputable. Throughout my time in Congress, I have remained steadfast on the side of civil society and human rights defenders in Egypt, and everywhere else in the world.

If you look at my actions related to Egypt during the period described in this indictment and throughout my whole career, my record is clear and consistent in holding each accountable for its unjust detention of American citizens and others, its human rights abuses, its deepening relationship with Russia, and efforts that have eroded the independence of the nation's judiciary, among a myriad of concerns.

In 2017, I led a bipartisan letter to then-President Trump expressing grave concern with the worsening situation for human rights and civil society in Egypt. That same year, I sent a letter to the Senate Appropriations Subcommittee supporting U.S. assistance to Egypt as long as Egypt adhered to the Camp David Accords and urged the appropriations committee to include the requirements for assistance reform strategies outlined in the Egypt Assistance Reform Act of 2013.

In 2018, I urged Secretary Kilson to focus more on human rights issues in Egypt and raised concerns that the electoral environment ahead of Egypt's elections at the time was not free, fair, and credible. In 2019, I met with President el-Sisi at the Munich Security Conference and emphasized the level of repression inside of Egypt risking eroding our security cooperation and raising concerns about Egypt's intent to purchase a Russian missile system. In 2020, I spoke on the Senate floor for International Women's Day and cited the cases of Mahienour El-Masry, a human rights lawyer, and Israa Abdel Fattah, a human rights activist and reporter who were unjustly detained in Egypt for fighting for human rights, democracy, and a free press.

I have placed holes in foreign military sales funding to Egypt. And in the presence of other United States senators, I have challenged President Sisi directly on human rights abuses, arbitrary detention, and press freedoms. And the list goes on.

Throughout my 30 years in the House of Representatives and the Senate, I have always worked to hold accountable those countries including Egypt for human rights abuses, the repression of its citizenry, civil society, and more. Those who now are attempting to malign my actions as it relates to Egypt simply don't know the facts.

Third. For 30 years, I have withdrawn thousands of dollars in cash from my personal savings account, which I have kept for emergencies and because of the history of my family facing confiscation in Cuba. Now, this may seem old-fashioned. But these were monies drawn from my personal savings account based on the income that I have lawfully derived over those 30 years. I look forward to addressing other issues at trial.

Fourth. I want to speak directly to the people of New Jersey. As I started these remarks, you're the reason why I have dedicated the entirety of my adult life to improving the lives of hard-working New Jerseyans and all Americans. Some of the people calling for my resignation for political reasons say I have lost the trust of the people of New Jersey. That couldn't be more wrong.

Today, I'm surrounded by everyday people and constituents who know me. They are here because I fought for important healthcare policies like the Affordable Care Act, access to reproductive health care, funding for community health centers, and lowering the cost of prescription drugs. They are here because I have fought for working people. Those who work five to nine, support those working from nine to five. I've always advocated for the right of workers to organize for better wages and working conditions and have been a staunch supporter of delivering critical services like affordable childcare to better support working families.


They are here because when New Jersey was in the darkest days following Superstorm Sandy, I never relented in making sure that New Jerseyans were made whole and had the resources to rebuild stronger and more resilient than before. They are here because during the worst pandemic in a century, I went to bat for small business owners throughout the state to ensure they could keep their doors open, and their employees on the payroll. They are here because when state and local governments were faced with the excruciating decision of having to lay off frontline responders, police officers, and firefighters during the pandemic, I delivered billions in federal funding and investments to keep our state, cities, and towns, and hospitals afloat. They are here because throughout my career, and some may not like the positions I've taken, I have stood against authoritarian regimes in Iran, and its desire to achieve nuclear weapons or Cuba and its dictatorship or authoritarianism in Turkey, Venezuela, Russia, and wherever in the world where human rights and democracy has been threatened. And they are here because I have made it my life's work about protecting refugees and immigrants who come to our shores seeking a better future for their children, just as my family do. They are here because during the past 30 years, I have fought tooth and nail so New Jersey would receive critical infrastructure funding and fought against the forces that tried to dismantle the Gateway project.

They are here because, since my earliest days in Congress, I have repeatedly stood up to the gun lobby to stop illegal firearms from claiming too many lives and destroying communities. They are here because when tragedy struck one of New Jersey's federal judges, I made a promise that I would not stop until I passed a law to better protect the dedicated public servants in the judiciary. And last year, I delivered passing legislation signed into law by the president that will better protect judges and their families.

And they are here because I never gave up on delivering justice for 9/11 families, especially the widows and children of those killed, who were previously and unfairly excluded from the U.S. victims of state- sponsored terrorism. And in December, working with others, I delivered billions of dollars and long overdue federal relief to that community and other U.S. victims of terror. They are here because when other members of Congress wanted to turn their backs on our veterans and not pass the PACT Act to provide health care for our veterans who were exposed to toxic burn pits, I was there. And they are here because I successfully passed legislation to better serve World War Two vets as well as those suffering from Gulf War illnesses.

For now, I remain focused on continuing to do the important work I do every day on behalf of the nine million people who call the New Jersey home, including doing everything we can this week to avoid a government shutdown, deliver critical funding for states affected by catastrophic natural disasters, and ensure the people of Ukraine have everything they need to defeat Putin. And I return to Washington this week to do exactly that. Now, let me just say a few words in Spanish.



JOHN BERMAN, CNN ANCHOR: Senator Bob Menendez of New Jersey now making part of his statement in Spanish after he just told the gathering of reporters that he firmly believes that he will be exonerated. And that when all is said and done, he will still be New Jersey's senior senator. In other words, he's not resigning, he's not going anywhere, and he is fighting this.


SARA SIDNER, CNN ANCHOR: Yes. There are several charges against him. And prosecutors put out several different pictures of the things that they found in his home, including gold bars, wads of cash, and a fancy car for his wife.

He talked about the wads of cash, which was surprising to a lot of folks, especially to those attorneys who wish he would not say that if they're defending him. But he talked about the thousands of dollars of cash and where it came from. He said it came from his personal savings account.

BERMAN: And he said he knows he might be old-fashioned but that is what he was doing. Thousands of dollars withdrawn from his personal savings account that he said came from lawfully derived income. Senator Bob Menendez says he is braced for what he knows, he says, will be his biggest fight yet.

SIDNER: That's right. But he also said prosecutors get it wrong sometimes. Sadly, I know he was referring to another bribery case that came against him that he beat in 2017. And he says he'll do it again.

Let's go to Jessica Schneider right now who has also been watching all of this unfold. What stuck out to you?

JESSICA SCHNEIDER, CNN JUSTICE CORRESPONDENT: Well, you know, Sara and John, after a weekend of these growing calls for Senator Menendez to resign. We saw that defiance from the senator. We saw him pledging to continue serving the New Jersey people as he has for decades.

He's speaking in Union City where he was once the mayor. He served in the New Jersey legislature, then in the House of Representatives, and now Senate -- the Senate. He's up for reelection in 2024.

But we really heard not only defiance but also the senator beginning to mount his defense. Remember that an indictment was brought on Friday. He's scheduled to appear in federal court for his first appearance likely arraignment on Wednesday along with his wife and his co-defendants.

And so, we're hearing the defense's here, namely two of them. Sara, you mentioned that he talked about all of that cash that was found in his home and in some cases on envelopes inside jackets that bore his name. He talked about the fact that these were from personal savings accounts.

Prosecutors have indicated that that was money that came from these New Jersey businessmen who were bribing him to do these official acts that may have influenced arms sales and military aid in Egypt. Also, he's accused of trying to influence criminal prosecutions on the federal side and on the state side in New Jersey. So, the senator coming right out and trying to defend against the nearly $500,000 that was actually found inside his home.

And then also talking about his record when it comes to Egypt. Because remember, another part of this very vast indictment spanning about 39 pages were allegations that he abused his power to influence arms sales, military aid to Egypt, in -- you know for kickbacks from those New Jersey businessmen. The prosecution talks about how he had meetings with Egyptian officials throughout this period spanning from 2018 to 2022. So, really what we're seeing from the Senator is already a defense. And he hasn't even appeared in court yet for his arraignment. That will be on Wednesday.

You know, the senator here talking -- referencing that prosecution that he -- that he went through, you know, beginning in 2015, that he was eventually -- there was a mistrial in 2017. The judge eventually acquitted him in 2018 with the Justice Department deciding not to bring more charges. But now, the senator facing probably a more difficult prosecution in this sense, a lengthy indictment, and -- but he is pledging to stay on as senator despite those mounting calls for his resignation, guys.

BERMAN: He calls it what will be his toughest fight yet. And he did say that when all the facts come out, he firmly believes he will be exonerated and he will be New Jersey's senior senator, which is his way of saying he is not at all resigned.

I want to bring in our senior political analyst John Avlon to this discussion. So, John, you did have the political defense there where he talked about people who are already in a way dancing on his grave because he says they "see political opportunity." You could talk about that. And as notable, Jessica said, there was also a bit of a legal defense there which will get you more later.

JOHN AVLON, CNN SENIOR POLITICAL ANALYST: Yes. Look. I mean the first thing is he's saying that people are rushing to judgment -- (INAUDIBLE) ignoring the fact people call him to resign are from New Jersey, predominantly Democrats. Members of his own political party. Yes, he has attracted one primary challenger to date, Congressman Andy Kim. But this really seems to be about the substance and not about expediency. You know, the details he offered were interesting, particularly the litany of his defenses, vis-a-vis his actions against Egypt and the Sisi regime as Chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee.


But none of that has anything to do with things details like gold bars showing up in his house. On the cash, he said he keeps lots of cash under the mattress. And in fact, I guess in jackets, as a hedge against you know generational trauma with regard to Cuba and land being possessed. That strange credulity, but we'll have to see how this all plays out. He is entitled to a presumption of innocence. But the details are so damning and the pattern is so troubling, that it's easy to see why Democrats are saying enough is enough.

SIDNER: There is the political issue where he is -- as he's put it, sort of fighting for his life. And then there is the legal issue. And I want to get to some of that with Gene Rossi. We've got him here now. Former prosecutor.

Gene, we've heard from Bob Menendez that on the charges of why he has all this cash, he says, look, it came from my personal savings account. It's something that I did because I'm old-fashioned. I'm from Cuba. And this is how you protect your money, even if it's old- fashioned.

He did not mention the gold bars or the car that his wife was accused of -- and also indicted for getting as part of a bribe. What do you make of him touching on some of the evidence but not others?

GENE ROSSI, FORMER ASSISTANT U.S. ATTORNEY, EASTERN DISTRICT OF VIRGINIA: Well, he's putting his toe in the water. And I'm thinking back to Rocky Marciano, who had a lot of cash because he didn't trust banks. But that was in the 1940s. We're now fast-forward to 2023.

Mr. Menendez's argument is similar to as if William Jefferson argued that he put the $90,000 of cash in his freezer because he wanted to preserve the integrity of the dollar bills. That argument -- it's a foolish argument. And if I had been his attorney, I would have told him to pause.

SIDNER: I'm assuming there will be forensic accounting. I mean, this has -- there has to be a paper trail, especially when it comes to money. So, if that is the case, it's easily provable.

BERMAN: Yes. And again, is interesting, as the defense whether or not you believe it strange credulity. Is the fact that he decided to make it today in front of news reporters to get that out there, why do you think he would do that? And if you were his attorney, would you have said, uh-uh?

ROSSI: Are you talking -- are you asking me?

BERMAN: Yes, sir.

ROSSI: Oh, yes, John. I think what Senator Menendez is trying to do is getting ahead of the curve. He's trying to walk you know mitigate the allegations. And I got to stress this.

These are allegations of presumption of innocence burden on the government, we all know that. He's already had a successful trial and got a hung jury. So, we have to give him the benefit of the doubt.

But what's important here and what your audience should understand is this case appears to be allegedly far different than Governor Bob McDonald. In that case, there was an attenuation, there were amorphous actions by Governor McDonald to do things for Johnny Williams. Here, allegedly, you have an official act and then you have cash, gold bars, checks, or some other benefit, or you're about to do an official act and you have cash checks, gold bars, and other benefits. There's a nexus between his actions that have occurred or will occur and the benefit that he got. And the gold bars and the cash, it's just proof that there was some quid pro quo allegedly.

BERMAN: We think that Senator Menendez may be getting close to being done here. Let's listen in for a second.


MENENDEZ: (INAUDIBLE) Thank you very much.


BERMAN: Not taking questions. Political sense. Did Senator Menendez buy himself some more time today? Will there be additional members of Congress -- Democratic members of Congress calling on his resignation after this?

AVLON: I think you framed it the right way, John. This is about buying time by presenting evidence that he says could be exculpatory. Because on the face of what was presented by the prosecutors, it's hard to imagine it, And it's an explanation.


But he's trying to say, look, my record shows I'm not a stooge for the government of Egypt. And I've got a perfectly logical explanation for all these thousands of dollars of cash that are lining my jacket. To design to sort of create a bit of pause, I think Democrats -- this is one of those tipping points in politics. It's a jump ball moment.

And whether more members, particularly the Senate, come forward and say, I'm sorry, the details are too disturbing and damning and the pattern is too troubling, this is a distraction we don't need. It's time for you to go. Now, they cannot compel him to do that. But if it becomes a near consensus in the Senate, that pressure wretches up. But I think he buys himself a little time.

SIDNER: You know, we just heard him talk about his 50 years in office. This is going to be his biggest fight yet. I want to go back to -- do we have Kara Scannell now or Jessica Schneider? OK.

Jessica Schneider, on your thoughts about how he went down. He really jumped on two different things. One, the cash. But he also talked a lot about his relationship with Egypt. And that particular charge seems to be one of the most troubling charges in this case that he was trying to have some influence and using bribery to help them for example, with military aid.

SCHNEIDER: Yes. And the thought that he pushed this military aid despite the record of human rights abuses in Egypt, and he -- that's what he really focused on in his defense that he mounted there at the press conference talking about how he has long urged for the addressing human rights issues in Egypt. He went down the list. He talked about letters that he's written to former President Trump. Meetings that he had with the president of Egypt.

So, trying to defend -- right, what you see in the indictment here against what his record was in the Senate as Chair of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. So, yes. I mean, that -- in terms of official acts, what was spelled out in the indictment as what he allegedly did to assist Egypt, whether it was having those meetings with officials from Egypt, outside the president -- presence of his staff. There were also accusations in the indictment that he gave sensitive information to those New Jersey businessmen who then related to Egyptian officials, the sensitive information being the number and nationality of the U.S. employees at the U.S. Embassy in Cairo. So, there are a lot more specifics in the indictment that the senator really did not touch on in his press conference, probably much to the relief of his lawyers. But he did talk about his rights -- or his record when it comes to looking at the human rights abuses that have been alleged in Egypt. So, that was a big talking point that will likely be expanded upon in his defense when he does begin these proceedings in the courtroom and beyond.

BERMAN: Yes. And look. I'm very glad you pointed that specific, Sara. Because in the indictment, there is the allegation that he provided sensitive nonpublic information to Egypt, which has nothing to do with what he talks about behind those microphones today, which was his long record of, he says, being tough on Egypt and standing up for human rights. The two not necessarily connected in any way.

Jessica, standby. I want to bring in Kara Scannell who was in the room for this statement from Senator Bob Menendez, who says, Kara, that when all is said and done, he firmly believes that he will be exonerated and he will still be the senior senator from New Jersey. He is not responding. What was it like to be there?

KARA SCANNELL, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Yes, John. I mean it is a packed room. It's filled with media. And you'll notice that there were some people standing behind the senator. Now, some of those people are members of the community because he made the point of saying that for those who thought that he should resign that he's lost the confidence of New Jerseyans, he's saying that is not the case.

And I don't know if you can hear but when he was giving his remarks in Spanish, there were at some point, it was met with applause by a certain corner of the room. And those were some of the supporters that he brought into this community college today for -- to stand behind him as he gives his remarks. Now, in addition to saying that he believes he's going to be exonerated, he also said that he asked people not to rush to judgment, to pause until all the facts are out because he said sometimes prosecutors get it wrong.

And that was a reference to, of course, his indictment in 2015, where he fought those charges, he did not resign then, he went to trial, and he eventually the case -- the jury couldn't make -- reached a verdict. That was a mistrial. The judge acquitted him on some charges. And the Department of Justice decided to drop the case as it was.

But these new allegations he's facing, you know, are serious allegations. And he sought to address some of that in the statements. You know, the big issue here is these photos that you see in the indictment of having cash stuffing envelopes in a jacket pocket with his name on it, a Mercedes Benz that his wife allegedly received in exchange for favors, and the gold bars that she also allegedly received.

Now, we only address the cash. He said that as an immigrant from Cuba, he has a family history of fear of confiscation, so he said he routinely withdrew thousands of dollars in cash. And that is why he had it on hand.


Of course, in the indictment, prosecutors allege that there was DNA from one of the businessmen who allegedly paid him the bribes. So, certainly a first step of Menendez trying to keep the support of his voters, but certainly still a long way to go. And he will be in federal court on Wednesday to face these charges. John.

SIDNER: Let me quickly ask you. The difference between what his statement was a couple of days ago over the weekend, and what his statement is now, his statement a few days ago was that he was being prosecuted because he was Latino. You didn't hear that or did -- or did I miss that?

SCANNELL: No, you didn't hear that today. The -- I think the tone has shifted a bit where he is saying, just take a deep breath, don't rush to judgment. Let all the facts come out.

Not quite as defiant as he was on Friday. But one thing that is consistent though is he thinks he is not going anywhere. And that he does expect to remain the senator -- the senior senator from New Jersey. Sara.

SIDNER: Thank you so much Kara Scannell and thank you to all of our others who have joined us today. We just need to mention again that Senator Bob Menendez is not stepping down. That was not what he -- what this press conference is about. It was about defending himself from all of these surprising bribery charges.

BERMAN: He says he will be exonerated. Thank you all so much for joining us. This has been CNN NEWS CENTRAL. "INSIDE POLITICS" is up next.