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Menendez, in Defiant Speech, Says Bribery Case Against Him Is ‘Baseless’

Senator Robert Menendez, Democrat of New Jersey, took to the Senate floor on Tuesday to deny charges that he accepted bribes to benefit the governments of Egypt and Qatar and defiantly warned colleagues that they could be next.

Mr. Menendez, in an extraordinary speech, accused the Justice Department of targeting him in a public smear campaign, saying prosecutors brought indictments based on “baseless conjecture, not facts” and dribbled out new accusations to erode his public standing.

He explained his conduct, laid out in the federal charges, as acts of routine statesmanship, not corruption. And he claimed, without further explanation, that it would become clear at trial that there was “no evidence” that gold bars and cash authorities found in his home were bribes.

“The United States attorney’s office is engaged not in a prosecution, but a persecution,” Mr. Menendez said, growing emotional at times. “They seek a victory, not justice.”

The remarks were highly unusual. Lawmakers are typically loath to discuss federal charges, particularly in the halls of Congress. Yet Mr. Menendez, a pugnacious fighter who beat back corruption charges once before, addressed his remarks directly to colleagues, including many who have called on him to resign.

“I don’t want you to lose sight of how dangerous this precedent would be to all of you,” the senator said, suggesting provocatively that the government’s approach, if successful, could make it a crime to advocate for a foreign government to buy American aircraft or agricultural goods.

That view differed sharply from the one prosecutors in Manhattan have advanced. Since September, a series of updated indictments have charged Mr. Menendez, together with his wife, Nadine, with using his Senate office to benefit foreign governments and allies at home in exchange for lucrative gifts, including mortgage and car payments, tens of thousands of dollars in cash and more in gold bars.

Though many of the actions they list — including Senate statements, legislation and personal phone calls — are not in themselves improper, the indictments have cited encrypted messages, secret dinners and even internet search history that together paint a portrait of a senator who they say knowingly flouted his oath.

Mr. Menendez’s speech did not address the government’s accusations that he also used his leverage to try to throttle state and federal prosecutions of key allies in exchange for bribes.

The case is scheduled to go to trial in May, and Mr. Menendez has not ruled out running for re-election this fall despite formidable primary challengers.

On Tuesday, Mr. Menendez took particular umbrage at the charge that he conspired to act as a foreign agent of Egypt between 2018 and 2022. The charge has little precedent, and prosecutors have said it stemmed from actions by Mr. Menendez to increase U.S. aid and military sales to Egypt in exchange for the payoffs.

Avoiding many of the indictment’s particulars, the senator argued that he took actions in relation to Egypt based solely on his senatorial judgment and typical foreign policy considerations. He ticked through a series of actions he had taken to punish or criticize Egypt over its human rights record and other issues over the years.

“Does any of this sound like I was on the take with Egypt?” he said, asserting one could not be a critic of a totalitarian state and its agent at the same time.

He similarly sought to rebut claims that he had helped the government of Qatar as part of an arrangement involving a New Jersey business developer seeking a multimillion-dollar investment from a fund run by a Qatari sheikh. Prosecutors said the senator supported Senate legislation and issued a public statement praising the Gulf nation to help the developer, who rewarded him with gifts to secure business.

Mr. Menendez, though, told fellow senators that he had “received nothing, absolutely nothing, from the government of Qatar” for his praise. He criticized the indictment for including photos of watches the developer offered to buy him “but no proof of receiving any such gift.”

As for his public statements on Qatar, “That give and take, that carrot and stick, that cajoling and rewarding is the essence of diplomacy,” he said.

Mr. Menendez said that the prosecution had taken a toll.

“I am suffering greatly as a result of what they have done,” he said, apparently choking back tears. “After 50 years of public service, this is not how I wanted to celebrate my golden jubilee. But I have never violated the public trust.”

Tracey Tully contributed reporting.

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