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WASHINGTON — Democrats are eager to run against former President Donald Trump’s alleged corruption and criminality while portraying themselves as the party of ethical behavior and good governance. But indicted Sen. Bob Menendez’s shocking corruption and bribery scandal — and his refusal to resign — is threatening to upend that 2024 campaign strategy.
The once-powerful New Jersey Democrat, who pleaded not guilty Wednesday to charges of bribery, fraud and extortion in a Manhattan federal court, is rejecting a chorus of calls from fellow Senate Democrats and top Democrats in his home state to resign.
“I’m innocent. What’s wrong with you guys?” a visibly frustrated Menendez told reporters when asked Tuesday night why he won't resign.
Menendez’s defiant posture is creating heartburn for some in his party, who have pointed to Trump’s historic four indictments as a central reason why voters should stick with Democrats and not send the ex-president back to the White House next year. And it means that the political headache will continue to dog Democrats in Washington in the months to come.
“It’s a horrible look for him, first and foremost. It’s a bad look for Democrats. It’s also a bad look for Congress and a bad look for elected officials across the country,” said Rep. Jamaal Bowman, D-N.Y., a former middle school principal who’s in his second term. “The almost general consensus from people who do not consistently engage in our democracy is that ‘Politics is corrupt. Politicians don’t care about us. We vote them in office, and they do nothing for us.’"
“So a senator with gold bars in their home and hundreds of thousands of dollars in cash — I’ve got 50 bucks, 50 bucks! It’s deplorable, man," he added.
Asked to respond to Menendez refusing to quit, Bowman replied: “He’s the embodiment of a selfish elected official, one that cares more about his bottom line, power, money, relationships, than he does the people he serves, than he does this body here, than he does the country.”
Rep. Dean Phillips, D-Minn., a member of the House Democratic leadership team, said everyone in the party needs to call for Menendez's resignation or try to forcibly remove him from office. It takes a two-thirds vote in the Senate to expel a member — something that has only happened 15 times since 1789, 14 of which occurred during the Civil War for supporting the Confederacy.
“If we aspire to be a party recognized for its prioritization of ethics and the restoration of faith in government, we must collectively condemn and seek the resignation or removal of anyone whose behavior results in a federal indictment. Period,” he told NBC News.
So far, 28 Democratic senators have called on Menendez to resign, including Senate Majority Whip Dick Durbin of Illinois, the No. 2 member of the Democratic leadership, and New Jersey’s junior senator, Cory Booker.
But Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., a longtime Menendez ally, has not called for his resignation, and no senators have raised the idea of expulsion. Most have not gone as far as their House counterparts, predicting the scandal would not result in widespread political fallout for Democrats up and down the ballot.
One outlier is the outspoken freshman Sen. John Fetterman, D-Pa., who suggested that Menendez remaining on the ballot through the general election would be harmful to vulnerable Democrats and Senate Democrats in general, who now control the upper chamber by a razor-thin 51-49 margin.
“Hell, yes, I support a primary challenge, because we cannot have this seat in play now because of this,” Fetterman said. “And again, 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.”
The indictment is chock-full of colorful details about how the then-Senate Foreign Relations Committee chairman and his wife, Nadine, allegedly accepted hundreds of thousands of dollars in cash, gold bars and a Mercedes-Benz convertible in exchange for helping the Egyptian government.
In his first public remarks since the indictment, Menendez on Monday said all of the cash was his.
“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,” he said. “These were moneys drawn from my personal savings account based on the income I have lawfully derived over those 30 years.”
The allegations are causing vulnerable Democrats to distance themselves from their colleague. Among the first to call for Menendez to step down were Senate Democrats facing competitive races in 2024, including Bob Casey of Pennsylvania, Jon Tester of Montana, Sherrod Brown of Ohio and Tammy Baldwin of Wisconsin. Control of the Senate is at stake in the next election.
Asked if Menendez is a political liability for Democrats, Brown told reporters: “I don’t worry about that. He’s not running in Ohio last time I checked. I was the second person who called for him to resign.”
Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., a former state attorney general who serves on the Senate Judiciary Committee, declined to comment on how the indictment was affecting the party but reiterated that Menendez should go. “I think Senator Menendez’s conduct merits his resigning and the decision ultimately will be his domain.”
Sen. Gary Peters of Michigan, who for the second cycle is leading the Senate Democrats’ campaign operation, has also called for Menendez to resign. But he sidestepped questions about whether it’s a problem for Menendez to run for re-election or for Democrats to now paint the GOP — the home of Trump and indicted New York Rep. George Santos — as the party of corruption and lawlessness.
“My focus as DSCC chair is to make sure we keep these seats Democratic, and I’ll continue to be focused on that,” Peters told reporters. “We’ve been making our statements as to what we think. I think you’re seeing pretty strong agreement among members of the Senate that he needs to resign.”
Rep. Andy Kim, D-N.J., a former national security aide in the Obama White House, has already launched a primary challenge against Menendez, and other Democrats are eyeing the race, as well. Rep. Mikie Sherrill, D-N.J., a retired Navy pilot, said she is not interested in running for the Senate but added that Menendez cannot continue to serve effectively.
“He is entitled to his day in court, but he’s not entitled to his Senate seat and he needs to resign,” she said in an interview. “The people have lost faith in him — I have been in New Jersey all weekend. I think he needs to resign so he can focus on his defense, and the people of New Jersey will know that they have a champion in the Senate who’s focusing on them.”
Other Democrats took offense to any comparison between Menendez and Trump, who is facing 91 criminal charges in four separate cases, ranging from alleged mishandling of classified documents and alleged falsifying of business records to his efforts to overturn the 2020 election. (Trump, too, has denied wrongdoing and pleaded not guilty in all cases.)
"There's no comparison here. We're looking at venality in one case, we're looking at systematic undermining of democratic institutions and the rule of law in the other. Those are very different things, and if we treat them like they're equal, we trivialize," said Rep. Gerry Connolly, D-Va., a senior member of the Oversight and Accountability Committee. "He's charged with attempting, in effect, a coup d’état."
Menendez has not stated yet whether he is running for re-election in 2024. But Republicans seem all too happy to have him remain on the ballot, saying he should not be pressured by his party to resign.
“The allegations against the Senior Senator from New Jersey are nasty & the evidence offered difficult to explain away,” Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., said on the social media site X. “But in America guilt is decided by a jury, not politicians in fear of their party losing a Senate seat.”
Another Republican, Sen. Tom Cotton of Arkansas, described the charges as “serious and troubling” but added that Menendez should have his day in court before he’s forced out. Cotton suggested Democrats were being politically expedient by calling for Menendez to resign now with New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy, a Democrat, holding the power to name his replacement; Menendez beat another federal bribery scandal in 2017, with backing from key Democrats.
“I don’t think the Democratic senators have had a sudden discovery of public righteousness,” Cotton said. “What they realize is that now there’s a Democratic governor in New Jersey to appoint his replacement whereas, eight years ago, when they manned the ramparts for him, there was a Republican governor.”
Over the weekend, House Speaker Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., said he believed that Menendez should resign. But asked Tuesday whether that meant that Santos should also resign, McCarthy appeared to reverse himself.
“Uh, no. I think George could have his day in court, and I think Menendez could have his day in court,” the speaker told reporters. “It could be his choice with what he wants to do.”
This article was originally published on NBCNews.com