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Opening Statements in Senator Menendez’s Corruption Trial: 5 Takeaways

The corruption trial of Senator Robert Menendez, a powerful New Jersey Democrat, spun into motion in Manhattan on Wednesday, with combative opening statements and an extraordinary claim by the defense.

Speaking directly to the jury, a U.S. prosecutor asserted that Mr. Menendez “put his power up for sale,” trading favors involving Egypt and New Jersey businessmen for gold bars, cash and a Mercedes-Benz convertible. But it was a lawyer for Mr. Menendez who shook the courtroom awake, piling blame on the senator’s wife, Nadine Menendez.

Mr. Menendez, 70, betrayed little emotion as he watched the opening statements from the courtroom, where he is facing some of the gravest charges ever leveled against a sitting U.S. senator. He has pleaded not guilty.

He is being tried alongside two of the businessmen, Fred Daibes and Wael Hana. Prosecutors have also charged Ms. Menendez, but her trial was delayed until July for health reasons.

Here are five takeaways from the senator’s third day on trial:

Prosecutors have spun a dizzying set of accusations against Mr. Menendez, filing four rounds of charges that involve a halal meat monopoly, a Qatari sheikh and the inner workings of the U.S. government. All of it could easily confuse jurors.

So laying out a road map for their case, they offered the panel a far simpler view: “This case is about a public official who put greed first,” said Lara Pomerantz, an assistant U.S. attorney. “A public official who put his own interests above the duty of the people, who put his power up for sale.”

What the jury needed to understand, she insisted, was that favors were granted by Mr. Menendez, including a letter ghost written to help Egypt and calls to pressure important government officials. In exchange, the couple amassed hundreds of thousands of dollars in cash, bars of gold and much more, with Ms. Menendez as a “go-between.”

Mr. Menendez’s lawyer, Avi Weitzman, used his first words to the jury to flatly deny that arrangement. But the heart of his defense was a head-turning proposition: Do not confuse the senator with his wife.

Mr. Menendez, his lawyer said, was “an American patriot,” the son of working-class immigrants who made it to Congress. All those instances of Mr. Menendez purportedly abusing his office to help a foreign power or New Jersey businessmen? They showed a senator “doing his job,” Mr. Weitzman said, asserting that the government had found no record of Mr. Menendez negotiating bribes.

He did not say the same of Ms. Menendez, who had come late into the senator’s life and concealed her financial burdens and communications from him, according to the lawyer. Mr. Weitzman did not outright say that Ms. Menendez accepted bribes. But if she did, he wanted to make it clear that his client did not know “what she was asking others to give her” — especially all that gold.

To make his point, Mr. Weitzman displayed photographs of a closet that he said belonged to Ms. Menendez. It was there, in her private quarters, he disclosed, that the F.B.I. found the gold bars and cash with Mr. Daibes’ fingerprints.

The senator did know that his wife had some gold, but assumed it was from her wealthy family of Persian rug dealers, the lawyer said. When Mr. Menendez repeatedly searched for the price of gold on Google, the lawyer said, he was looking to see how much money Ms. Menendez could generate from that family gift — not to cash out a bribe.

“He did not know of the gold bars that existed in that closet,” he said.

Likewise, Mr. Weitzman said Mr. Menendez had been in the dark about how Ms. Menendez got the funds to purchase a $60,000 Mercedes-Benz convertible. In a guilty plea, another New Jersey businessman admitted that he gave Ms. Menendez the car “in return for influencing a United States senator to stop a criminal investigation.”

The case against Mr. Menendez could hardly be more serious. It has already made history: Mr. Menendez is the first senator to be indicted in more than one bribery case. (The first ended in a mistrial in 2017.)

But as his trial opened this week in Lower Manhattan, it was hard to escape the conclusion that it was being overshadowed by the state courthouse just a few hundred yards away. That is where, thanks to a quirk of timing, former President Donald J. Trump is in the midst of his hush-money trial.

The first ever trial of a former president has inspired wall-to-wall cable news coverage. Unlike the Menendez case, it includes nationally known witnesses, like Stormy Daniels and Michael Cohen. And it has attracted a parade of high-profile visitors to buck up Mr. Trump, including the speaker of the House.

All of it is probably good news for Mr. Menendez and his party, which is vulnerable to political attacks after allowing him to continue serving in the Senate under indictment.

The case has proceeded unusually quickly since the government first brought charges in September 2023. As for the trial, do not expect a verdict anytime soon.

Prosecutors have said they may take as many as six weeks to lay out the tangled web of corruption they say surrounded Mr. Menendez. When Judge Sidney H. Stein read a list of dozens of potential witnesses (including several sitting senators), he informed jurors they would be likely to hear testimony in Spanish and Arabic.

The defense has indicated it will then take another one to two weeks, setting up a verdict sometime around July 4. Except for odd days off, Mr. Menendez will be stuck in the courtroom the whole time, depriving Democrats of a key vote in the Senate, where they control a spare 51-to-49 majority.

Maria Cramer and Maia Coleman contributed reporting.

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