Sen. Bob Menendez faced rapidly growing calls from Senate colleagues Tuesday to resign, including one from his fellow New Jersey Democrat Cory Booker, over a federal indictment alleging that he and his wife accepted bribes in exchange for exerting his political influence.
Charges against Menendez were announced Friday, but most Senate Democrats remained largely silent ahead of their return to Washington on Tuesday. But by the time the chamber was gaveled into session Tuesday afternoon, Booker and 17 others had issued statements calling on Menendez to step aside, many of them in rapid succession. By the end of the day, more than half of the Senate Democratic caucus had called for Menendez to resign.
In a lengthy statement early in the day, Booker said he believes Menendez needs to step down, asserting that the allegations the senator faces “are of such a nature that the faith and trust of New Jerseyans as well as those he must work with in order to be effective have been shaken to the core.”
“Stepping down is not an admission of guilt but an acknowledgment that holding public office often demands tremendous sacrifices at great personal cost,” Booker’s statement read. “Senator Menendez has made these sacrifices in the past to serve. And in this case he must do so again. I believe stepping down is best for those Senator Menendez has spent his life serving.”
Menendez remained defiant Tuesday. In a brief exchange with reporters at the Capitol in which he was asked why he won’t resign, the senator said: “Because I’m innocent. What’s wrong with you guys?”
Calls for Menendez’s resignation within his own party come as Democrats’ hold only a one-seat majority in the Senate. Menendez’s Senate seat is on the ballot next year, and before last week’s indictment, he had expressed an intent to run again. If he vacates the position before the end of his term, New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy (D) — who has also called for Menendez’s resignation — will appoint a replacement. The indictment sets up a potential political dilemma for Democrats, possibly turning a relatively safe seat for an incumbent into a competitive race.
Sen. Gary Peters (D-Mich.), head of the party arm that helps elect Senate Democrats, weighed in, urging Menendez in a statement to resign given “the serious nature of these charges.” Asked if he was worried about losing a reliable blue seat in 2024, Peters said: “New Jersey has been Democratic for a lot of years and will continue to be Democrat. I’m confident we’re going to have a Democrat who is going to win.”
Many of the Democrats who are facing difficult reelections next year, including Sens. Robert P. Casey Jr. (Pa.), Sherrod Brown (Ohio) and Jon Tester (Mont.), were among those calling for Menendez’s resignation Tuesday.
Sen. John Fetterman (D-Pa.), the first senator to urge Menendez to step down last week, said Tuesday that he worried that if the Menendez stayed, it could be a drag on those other Democrats. Asked if he would support a Democratic primary challenge to Menendez, Fetterman said, “Hell yeah.”
“We cannot have this seat in play now because of this. It’s not about him, it’s about control of that seat and the Senate, and we have our colleagues in tough, hard races right now to maintain that majority, and this is beyond selfish,” Fetterman told reporters.
Rep. Andy Kim (D-N.J.) announced over the weekend that he intends to run against Menendez. Most of New Jersey’s House delegation, and a bevy of elected officials up and down the ranks in the state have called for Menendez’s resignation.
The increasing calls from Democrats for Menendez to step aside stands in stark contrast to how most Republican lawmakers have responded to the multiple indictments of former president Donald Trump, accusing prosecutors of being politically motivated.
Several Republicans on Capitol Hill, including Sens. Tom Cotton (Ark.) and Marco Rubio (Fla.), urged Menendez to stay put, accusing Democrats of wanting him gone for political reasons. “The allegations against the Senior Senator from New Jersey are nasty & the evidence offered difficult to explain away,” Rubio wrote in a post on X, formerly known as Twitter. “But in America guilt is decided by a jury, not politicians in fear of their party losing a Senate seat.”
Menendez, 69, has vehemently denied the Justice Department’s allegations and has steadfastly refused to resign, saying Monday that he believes he’ll be exonerated. The senator was back in Washington on Tuesday and is scheduled to also make his first appearance in federal court in Manhattan this week.
According to the indictment, Menendez allegedly accepted bribes from three businesses that included home furnishings, a Mercedes-Benz convertible and payments toward a mortgage. Authorities said they found gold bars and nearly $500,000 in cash stashed in envelopes hidden in clothing, closets and a safe.
Menendez did step down from his position as chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee in the wake of Friday’s indictment, in accordance with the Senate Democratic Caucus’s rules. The indictment alleges that he accepted bribes in exchange for using his powerful position to benefit the Egyptian government.
Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.), who sits on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, told reporters that “the best path forward for Sen. Menendez and for the Senate is for him to step down.”
Murphy also suggested that the Senate needs to determine the extent to which the Egyptian government was “running an illicit influence campaign on the Foreign Relations Committee.”
Most Democrats said Menendez deserves a fair trial, but that the overwhelming evidence against him violated the public’s trust in him as an elected official.
“Nothing is proven yet and that’s what makes it so hard for everybody, but trust has got to be paramount if you’re in government,” said Sen. John Hickenlooper (Colo.), who told reporters he also felt Menendez should resign.
While the list of Senate Democrats wanting Menendez to leave office continues to grow, there remain several who have expressed concerns about the allegations laid out in the indictment but have stopped short of calling for him to resign.
“Let me just make it very clear to you. The beauty about the United States is the rule of law. Everyone’s innocent until proven guilty,” Sen. Joe Manchin III (D-W.Va.) told reporters. “And the only things I can tell you, this is between the people in New Jersey and Sen. Bob Menendez.”
Senate Majority Leader Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) said in a statement Friday that Menendez “has a right to due process and a fair trial” but said his decision to step down from the committee was the right move.
The White House has also declined to call on Menendez to resign. White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre said Tuesday that it’s “a serious matter” that’s “up to him and the leadership in the Senate.”
In the House, Rep. Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), the former speaker, said she thinks it “would probably be a good idea if [Menendez] did resign.”
Members of New Jersey’s U.S. House delegation are also pressing the senator to resign.
Rep. Josh Gottheimer (D-N.J.) issued a statement Saturday commending the senator’s record, but he also said that the allegations would affect his ability to represent New Jersey in the Senate successfully. New Jersey Democratic Reps. Donald W. Norcross, Bonnie Watson Coleman, Frank Pallone Jr. and Bill Pascrell Jr. have also called for Menendez’s resignation.
The latest bribery allegations come more than five years after a New Jersey jury deadlocked after Menendez was tried on a separate set of bribery charges. The Senate Ethics Committee in early 2018 said Menendez violated federal law and Senate rules in accepting unreported gifts from a friend and political ally. The panel called on him to pay back the gifts he received. Menendez still easily won reelection that fall.
Sabrina Malhi and Matt Viser contributed to this report.