Menendez seems to still believe he’s wrapped in Teflon, insisting in a press event Monday that he’s not resigning his Senate seat after being indicted for the second time on bribery charges.
But his remarkable half-century run in politics looks all but finished after a young, straitlaced prosecutor matter-of-factly laid out the depth of his latest alleged corruption on Friday.
The accusations were so egregious, and showed such a staggering pattern of venality, that loyal Democrats who lavished praise and donations on him for years, even as he faced previous corruption charges, had no choice but to jump ship. By 5 p.m. Friday, Gov. Phil Murphy called for Menendez’s immediate resignation, and many others followed. By Saturday morning, another fellow Democrat, Rep. Andy Kim, said he’s running for Menendez’s seat.
It marked a steep and swift fall — and one that Menendez still seems not to recognize. He unleashed a lengthy and defiant statement Friday suggesting he is a political target and that his ethnicity is a motivating factor. He did so again Monday in his native Union City, saying that “prosecutors get it wrong. Sadly, I know that.”
Menendez’s response offers a window on an operating style that made him an extraordinarily powerful politician, one with papal status back home in the Garden State: Walk with a chip on your shoulder, attack your opponents, never back down. He’s simply hard-wired differently. Most people who escaped prison through a hung jury might think twice before jaywalking. Menendez instead threatened his opponents right after the mistrial, won another term a year later and, several people who know him said after Friday’s indictment, seemed emboldened by it all.
But there was one strikingly notable difference when he stood before dozens of reporters Monday insisting he’ll prove his innocence and remain in office. He didn’t have his friend and fellow senator Cory Booker there (and Booker would call for Menendez’s resignation Tuesday). He didn’t have Gov. Phil Murphy there. He didn’t have a single person of statewide influence at his side. All he had was a partial response to the indictment and the familiar offensive tactic that his opponents “see a political opportunity for themselves.”
“That worked for him as long as he got away with it, and he got away with it for a long time,” Rasmussen said. “Now all of a sudden that’s not working for him anymore, and that’s what happens to a bully.”
In Hudson County, where Menendez grew up, politics is famously a blood sport ruled by bosses. Just east of Union City, in Weehawken, Aaron Burr fatally shot Alexander Hamilton in a duel. A few blocks south is where Jersey City Mayor Frank “I am the law” Hague infamously reigned for more than three decades. In Union City alone — 1.3 square miles of concrete and pavement in the shadow of Manhattan — two consecutive mayors were convicted of corruption and for many years it was a mob outpost.
The son of Cuban immigrants raised in a tenement in the notoriously ethics-challenged county, Menendez made his name early as a young Union City school board member who turned on his mentor — the city’s mayor — and wore a bulletproof vest to court to testify against him. The vest was no dramatic flourish. Menendez had not only turned on former Union City Mayor William Musto, but essentially the city government and mob bosses, alleging public corruption (Musto was convicted of racketeering but won reelection a day after being sentenced to prison; his immediate successor, Robert Botti, was convicted and sentenced in a bid-rigging scheme.)
“I didn’t need anyone to tell me to protect myself,” Menendez has reportedly said.
Menendez may have feared for his life then, but it had only just begun politically.
Menendez gained local clout as mayor and became a sort of folk hero at home once he moved on to the state Capitol in Trenton, where he was a representative, and then to Washington, D.C. For the last 17 years, he has served as an immensely powerful senator. He became known as an effective legislator who mastered constituent services. Even as the powerful chair of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee — where he dealt with dictators and globally consequential matters like Iranian nuclear deals — Menendez recognized the power of local retail politics. On just one day in August, for example, he held a press conference on funding for a new hospital program, held a round table with farmers and appeared with families of drug overdose victims to push legislation to crack down on fentanyl.
“If you ever followed Bob Menendez in any of the parades … the guy is the pope,” said one Democratic official close to the meeting among Murphy and state leaders following the indictment. “People are coming up to him, taking pictures, hugging him. People just see him as what their children can become.”
Sure, he’d gathered clouds of corruption the higher he rose, and even stood trial on charges of bribery in 2017. But that ended in a hung jury and Menendez pushed a Trumpian narrative that his political opponents were after him. Walking scot-free from a corruption trial on a technicality cost him exactly zero political capital. In fact, New Jersey’s Democratic machinery quickly rallied around him for a reelection bid he’d win a year later. As one North Jersey operative put it, Menendez’s continued involvement in Hudson County politics made him both a powerful senator and de facto county boss.
“He was able to raise money, he had deep reach, he could back up threats that he made. So that obviously extended the length of his influence and power,” the operative said.
And in perhaps the clearest example of his sustained influence after the trial, Menendez effectively installed his son, Rob Menendez, a lawyer with no political experience, in Congress with no opposition and the full backing of state party leaders.
The killer instinct that made Menendez one of the most powerful and enduring politicians in a notoriously cutthroat state has never been far from the surface. In what has become a famous example of Jersey’s vindictive brand of politics, Menendez stood outside the federal courthouse in Newark after his 2017 mistrial and issued a warning to his rivals.
“To those who were digging my political grave so they could jump into my seat,” he said, “I know who you are and I won’t forget you.”
Menendez won another six-year term in 2018. Prosecutors allege that year is exactly when he started trading on his influence. Between 2018 and 2022, he allegedly accepted hundreds of thousands of dollars’ worth of bribes — in gold, cash, a Mercedes-Benz and mortgage payments for his wife — from three New Jersey businesspeople.
His “corrupt arrangement” included providing “sensitive, non-public U.S. government information to Egyptian officials,” secretly aiding the Egyptian government and helping one New Jersey company gain a monopoly on the export of certified halal meat to Egypt, which led to increased costs of meat suppliers and “was detrimental to U.S. interests,” federal authorities said.
Simply being indicted a second time is, perhaps surprisingly, not the sole reason Menendez’s political career is now believed to be in its terminal stage. Timing is one element. Menendez was first indicted in 2015 and stood a two-month trial that ended in November 2017 — a year before his next election, giving him in effect a clean bill of political health on the trail.
This time he faces the prospect of waiting for trial as he seeks reelection in 2024, and the Democratic Party will hardly want to pour money and resources into what would otherwise be a safe seat in a presidential election year.
“All it would take is someone with half a profile and he’d lose,” the North Jersey operative said. “The reality is that he’s done as a United States senator.”
Another reason for that is the case itself. Whereas prosecutors struggled in 2017 to cleanly connect dots between campaign finance donations, luxury trips and official favors for a friend, they have now unveiled a set of allegations that is instantly relatable to anyone who’s watched “The Sopranos.”
“If you presented somebody with a movie script and said part of the story was we’d trade gold bars and cash and track it with DNA, and then we’re going to find the cash…you’d say we’ve got to edit that out of the script because it’s not believable,” said Jersey City Mayor Steven Fulop, who has a frosty relationship with Menendez and who is running for governor in 2025. “The only people that deal in gold bars are cartoon villains.”
Former Democratic Sen. Bob Torricelli, who considered running for Menendez’s seat if he were convicted in 2017 — and who was likely one of the intended targets of Menendez’s courthouse threat — said the crimes Menendez is accused of committing may stand out well beyond New Jersey. He would know better than most: He ended his Senate reelection campaign in 2002 amid pressure for ethics violations.
“There are always indiscretions in politics, as there are in any profession,” he said. “This is not only atypical of the United States Congress, it is unprecedented. It is unprecedented not only in this Congress, but in all Congresses that I’ve ever known and all that preceded us.”
Barring another mistrial or some legal clearance of Menendez’s conduct, the fairytale of the American ideal he built his career on may only be a footnote to the darker story the world is about to watch unfold in a Manhattan courtroom.
“It’s over. He’s not even in hospice,” a longtime Democratic operative who knows Menendez well said. “The priest is there. It’s just looking at the clock to get to last rites.”