What to know about the federal trial of NJ Senator Robert Menendez

A top US senator is going on trial on charges he accepted bribes, including gold bars and a Mercedes, in exchange for helping foreign governments.

Robert Menendez, 70, is accused in federal court of corruptly aiding Egypt and Qatar, and funding his lavish lifestyle with gifts he received.

The New Jersey Democrat has pleaded not guilty. If convicted, he faces probable expulsion from the Senate and possibly decades in prison.

Here's everything you need to know.

Who is Bob Menendez?

Senator Menendez speaks to reporters at a press conference with other Democrats
Mr Menendez is among the top Latino Democrats on Capitol Hill [Getty Images]

Mr Menendez has been the US Senator for New Jersey since 2006.

He was the top-ranking Democrat on the powerful Senate Foreign Relations Committee for more than five years, a position that gave him significant influence over US foreign policy.

The son of Cuban immigrants, he is among Capitol Hill's most prominent Latino lawmakers and has been an outspoken advocate on immigration policy.

Mr Menendez has faced federal corruption charges before. He was tried in 2017, with the justice department alleging he did political favours for a wealthy Florida eye doctor in exchange for luxury holidays and other lavish gifts.

But that case ended in a mistrial after he was acquitted on some charges and jurors were unable to reach a unanimous verdict.

Facing a second indictment, Mr Menendez has stepped down from his chairmanship of the foreign affairs panel and has said he will not run for re-election as a Democrat.

But he has resisted bipartisan pressure to resign from the Senate, adding that he may seek to hold on to his seat with an "independent Democrat" candidacy if he is acquitted this summer.

What's he charged with now?

Last September, justice department prosecutors accused Mr Menendez and his wife of participating in a wide-ranging scheme to secretly aid the Egyptian government.

They said a 2022 FBI search at the couple's New Jersey home had unveiled "the fruits" of a "corrupt bribery agreement" - including gold bars worth more than $100,000 (£80,000), and hundreds of thousands of dollars in cash in envelopes and hidden in jackets in the closet.

Agents also found other apparent gifts, including a luxury Mercedes-Benz in the garage and a range of home furnishings.

The government claims Mr Menendez used his perch in Washington to break through a hold on US military aid to Egypt, as well as boost the business interests of his associates and interfere with their criminal prosecutions.

In a superseding indictment one month later, prosecutors accused the senator of providing sensitive US information to help Egypt's government.

More charges followed in January, when the justice department alleged Mr Menendez had also accepted bribes to use his influence to benefit Qatar.

In total, Mr Menendez now faces 18 criminal counts, including bribery, extortion, wire fraud, obstruction of justice and acting as a foreign agent.

He has denied all the charges, describing them as "baseless conjecture" and a racially motivated "persecution".

What's Menendez's wife charged with?

September's initial indictment also saw bribery and obstruction charges against Mr Menendez's wife, Nadine Arslanian Menendez.

An Armenian refugee of the Lebanese civil war, she married the senator in 2020.

Prosecutors have charged Mrs Menendez, 57, with bribery and obstruction of justice, laying out her alleged role in introducing her husband to, and maintaining contact with, their corrupt associates.

She has pleaded not guilty to the charges - and, after notifying the court of a "serious medical condition" that requires surgery and weeks of recovery, was granted a separate trial.

U.S. Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Bob Menendez (D-NJ) and his wife Nadine Arslanian arrive for a reception
Senator Bob Menendez and wife Nadine [Getty Images]

Who else is charged?

Charged alongside the couple are Fred Daibes, a New Jersey property developer, and Wael Hana, the Egyptian-born operator of a halal certification company.

Mr Daibes also faces separate allegations that he took out loans under false pretences and allegedly sought Mr Menendez's help with disrupting his case.

Mr Hana is accused of introducing Mr Menendez to Egyptian officials and paying him for "non-public information" about US military aid to Egypt.

Both have pleaded not guilty to the charges.

A fifth defendant, insurance broker Jose Uribe, pleaded guilty in March to charges related to the corrupt scheme and is co-operating with investigators.

He has admitted to paying for Mrs Menendez's new Mercedes, after she wrote off an earlier Mercedes in a crash that killed a pedestrian. Uribe is due to be sentenced on 14 June.

What might we hear at trial?

The proceedings will take place at a federal court in Manhattan.

Jury selection began on Monday and the trial is expected to last six to eight weeks, with the defendant required to attend each day.

Prosecutors will be able to draw on digital evidence, including texts between the couple and with their associates, as well as a web history that included Mr Menendez searching on Google "how much is one kilo of gold worth".

US District Judge Sidney Stein, who will preside over the trial, has barred the senator from claiming immunity under the constitution for his advocacy on behalf of the businessmen.

But he can argue that he believed "whatever he did was good for the public" and that his actions were not criminal but analogous to how other politicians operate.

Judge Stein also ruled against a Menendez bid to call a psychiatrist to testify that Mr Menendez stashed gold bars and envelopes of cash as a "fear of scarcity" response to "intergenerational trauma". His family saw most of its savings confiscated by the Cuban government, and his father was a compulsive gambler who failed to pay off his debts and later died by suicide.

It is not clear yet whether Mr Menendez will take the stand - and court filings suggest he could point the finger at his wife as part of his defence.