5 takeaways from the opening of Sen. Bob Menendez’s corruption trial

The corruption trial of Sen. Bob Menendez is off to an explosive start, with prosecutors saying the New Jersey Democrat was “on the take” from a cast of shady characters and lawyers for Menendez and his co-defendants all casting blame on the senator’s wife, Nadine, for any potential crimes.

Menendez, 70, has been charged with acting as a foreign agent on behalf of Egypt and assisting the government of Qatar, all while taking bribes from several New Jersey businessmen. He is being tried with Wael Hana, an Egyptian American businessman, and Fred Daibes, a New Jersey real estate developer. All three have pleaded not guilty.

The allegations against Menendez, who stepped down as chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee after being indicted, have already put his long political career on the brink. He is not running for reelection in next month’s Democratic primary but has said he would consider an independent bid should he be exonerated.

After seating a jury Wednesday, the lawyers took centerstage. First up was the prosecution, which sought to take the complex allegations and spell them out in plain English – describing a series of “schemes” conducted by the defendants and led by a powerful US senator who was, as assistant US Attorney Lara Pomerantz put it, “on the take” and using his wife as a “go-between” with his partners. (Nadine Menendez is also charged and set to go on trial in July, separately from her husband.)

The senator’s lawyer, Avi Weitzman, painted a much different picture, depicting his client as a lovestruck naif, unaware of Nadine Menendez’s financial dealings, debts and – most spectacularly – the contents of her closet in their home, where she kept gold bars allegedly given to her as bribes. Attorneys for Hana and Daibes followed a similar script. Like Weitzman, they also argued that the transactions between the three, and Menendez’s wife, did not qualify as a crime – but were simply friendly gift-giving outside the context of the senator’s official governmental powers.

Here are five takeaways from the opening of the Bob Menendez trial:

The Blame (Nadine) Game

The most striking notes from the opening statements by the defendants’ lawyers concerned Nadine Menendez and her role in the alleged crimes of her husband, Hana and Daibes.

While Pomerantz, the prosecutor, described Nadine Menendez mostly as a conduit for the passage of bribes between the men, the senator’s lawyer suggested she was a driving, deceitful figure. He told the story of a younger woman, who was “beautiful,” “tall” and cosmopolitan. Nadine Menendez, Weitzman said, “had financial concerns she kept” from her husband and engaged in cash and gold exchanges of which he was not made aware.

“She kept things from him,” Weitzman told the jury. “She kept him in the dark.”

Weitzman brought a series of visual aids to underscore his point.

One image from the couple’s home showed Nadine Menendez’s “locked closet,” a rambling walk-in with messy racks and clothes strewn on the floor, where the now infamous gold bars were found. The senator, Weitzman said, “did not know of the gold bars that existed in that closet.” Later on, Weitzman showed another photo, this time of the senator’s closet – a smaller space with neatly hung suit jackets and shirts. Nothing of interest, he stressed to the jury, had been found there.

The lawyer for Hana, Lawrence Lustberg, also focused a large chunk of his opening statement on Nadine Menendez. She and his client “cared about each other,” Lustberg said, and frequently gave one another gifts – tequila, jewelry, watches.

Their personal friendship, he explained, led to an ill-fated business arrangement. Nadine Menendez was supposed to help set up offices for Hana’s halal company, but she – as Lustberg characterized it – not only failed to follow through but was essentially an absentee employee and did not want to work eight-hour days.

The three checks from his company to her, each for $10,000, were not bribes, Lustberg insisted, but parting compensation to “make her good on it.”

Later Thursday morning, Bob Menendez announced in a statement that his wife has breast cancer and will undergo a mastectomy. Her trial had been delayed and split from her husband’s owing to a previously disclosed “serious medical condition.” The senator said the couple went public with the information in a bid for privacy, “as a result of constant press inquiries and reporters following” her.

The defense drills down on the definition of ‘crime’

“Robert Menendez was a United States senator on the take,” Pomerantz, an assistant US attorney, told the jury in her opening remarks. “Motivated by greed, focused on how much money he could put in his own pocket and his wife’s pocket. That is why we are here today. That is what this trial is all about.”

Lawyers for the senator, Hana and Daibes, again, offered a different take.

On Thursday, Cesar de Castro, Daibes’ lawyer, argued that prosecutors were distorting the nature of his client’s relationship with Bob and Nadine Menendez.

“The government wants you to assume, presume and infer the worst. It needs you to assume the worst in order for the evidence to make sense, and that tells you everything you need to know about this case,” de Castro said. “There’s one thing on which we can agree with the government: This case is about relationships.”

Hana’s lawyer made a similar point.

None of Hana’s “gifts” to Nadine Menendez, “before or after she met Mr. Menendez, were in exchange for anything,” Lustberg said. “What the government is trying to do here is criminalize gift-giving.”

“It’s a good thing,” he added, “human beings give each other gifts.”

Weitzman, the senator’s lawyer, offered a broader criticism of the government’s case, saying that prosecutors were conflating “constituent services” with bribery and “diplomacy” with allegations that he worked as a foreign agent.

He argued that his client, in his advocacy for Hana on a range of issues, “was acting lawfully” in his role as a US senator.

“You might not like it,” Weitzman told jurors, “but it is not a crime.”

A question of culture

The gold bars discovered in the Menendez home, which the indictment says were given as bribes, has become the trial’s trademark, headline-grabbing detail. In court, the defense attorneys in their opening statements sought to defuse the issue.

Their message was consistent: The giving or receiving of gold or gold bars should not imply any criminal behavior. Especially so in this case, they argued, because both Nadine Menendez, originally from Lebanon, and Hana, an Egyptian immigrant, hail from a region where keeping gold is “cultural,” as Weitzman stated.

Hana’s lawyer said his client gave Nadine Menendez gifts aplenty, but he told the jury that they “will hear nothing about gold bars that are traceable to Wael Hana in the senator’s home.” They will be told, he said, that gold is a particular gift that people in the Middle East give each other.

When Daibes’ attorney had the stage, he accused prosecutors of unfairly concluding that the presence of gold suggests “something nefarious must be happening.”

The government’s case, de Castro said, failed to acknowledge “that investing in precious metals” is common, as is the giving of gold to friends.

Boots, bags, boxes and jackets… of cash

The first witness called by prosecutors, FBI special agent Aristotelis Kougemitros, testified Thursday in new and remarkable detail about the nearly half a million dollars in cash, alongside gold jewelry and more than a dozen gold bars, that investigators seized from the Menendez home.

Perhaps more interesting than the sum, though, was where it was all discovered: in a safe, in two black duffel bags, in several boxes and jackets, and stuffed in two pairs of boots. All of it was captured in photographs shown to the court by prosecutors.

All told, the FBI found $486,461 in cash, 11 one-ounce gold bars and a pair of one-kilogram gold bars.

Inside Bob Menendez’s home office, adorned with pictures of the senator, sports memorabilia and a small statue of the US Capitol atop his desk, a large black duffel bag found on a chair contained two smaller bags – a Burberry bag filled with $100,000 and another black bag with $33,220 inside, Kougemitros said.

Moving on to the garage, the FBI found $4,300 in the pockets of a blue congressional jacket with the emblem of the US Senate woven on the top left and the senator’s name engraved on the other side. Other apparel concealing the cash included a tweed jacket containing $21,000, a black leather jacket filled with $6,000, another black jacket with $28,000 inside and a coat containing $8,000.

And then there were the boots. One pair of red boots turned up by the FBI contained dozens of $100 bills. Inside another pair of boots lay $7,500, Kougemitros said.

Pomerantz finished questioning Kougemitros before the court adjourned for the day. He will return to the stand for cross-examination Friday morning.

Who’s paying attention? (Not Republicans)

Though the courtroom has been mostly full during the opening days of the Menendez trial, there has been a notable lack of hoopla outside on the streets of Lower Manhattan – especially in comparison with the circus-like atmosphere that has consumed former President Donald Trump’s hush money trial, which is taking place a short walk away.

That’s welcome news, or a pleasing lack thereof, for national Democrats who might otherwise be facing tougher questions about Bob Menendez’s alleged crimes and why, despite the damning nature of the indictment, he is still a member in good standing of the US Senate. (More than half of the Senate Democratic caucus has called on him to step down, including top ally Cory Booker, the junior senator from New Jersey. Menendez resigned as chair of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, but there has been no effort to remove him from office.)

Menendez is up for reelection this year but will not run in the Democratic primary, which Rep. Andy Kim is poised to win in his bid to succeed the longtime incumbent. But with no serious Republican challenger in the race, and the national GOP pre-occupied with Trump – many of them making regular pilgrimages to New York to appear beside him – the Menendez case has mostly flown below the radar outside New York and New Jersey.

In fact, the Democrat most likely to suffer politically could be the senator’s son, Rob Menendez Jr., a first-term US House member from North Jersey. He is facing a primary challenge from Hoboken Mayor Ravi Bhalla, who has frequently invoked the incumbent’s father during their tense campaign.

“His son also happens to be my primary opponent in NJ-08 and was handpicked by his father for his seat,” Bhalla said in his call for the senator to resign earlier his year. “This culture of corruption and cronyism is bad for New Jersey and bad for America.”

This story and headline have been updated.

CNN’s Holmes Lybrand contributed to this report.

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