Indicted Democratic Sen. Robert Menendez of New Jersey was defiant on Wednesday, announcing “I am not going anywhere” amid federal allegations of bribery and corruption.
The embattled senator, who had served as a ranking member of the Foreign Relations Committee, entered a press conference on Wednesday to raucous applause and cheers of support. He directly addressed the allegations against him – in English and Spanish – but did not take questions.
“I’m angry and ready to fight because today contradicts my public service career and my entire life.” Menendez said as he traced back his roots in politics, claiming he endured death threats when he fought corruption as mayor of Union City. “I have always conducted myself in accordance with the law,” he said before pledging, “This is not how my career is going to end.”
Later on Wednesday the senator confirmed rumors that he would be stepping down from his leadership post. ”I am hereby notifying you that I am temporarily stepping down as Ranking Member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee,” Menendez wrote in a letter to Democratic Minority Leader Sen. Harry Reid. “While there is no caucus rule that dictates that I do so, I believe it is in the best interests of the Committee, my colleagues, and the Senate which is why I have chosen to do so.”
Senate Democratic Whip Dick Durbin called Menendez’s choice “the right decision” in a statement. “The issues before Senator Menendez are now legal ones and can only be resolved in a court of law, where all Americans are presumed innocent until proven otherwise,” said Durbin.
The son of Cuban immigrants, Menendez was first elected in the Democratic wave of 2006 and won re-election in 2012 — despite a widely reported, but erroneous, story alleging his involvement in a underage prostitution ring. He has frequently clashed with the Obama administration on foreign policy, most prominently on diplomatic outreach to Cuba and Iran. His tenure in office was dogged by rumors of unethical dealings, which came to a head on Wednesday with the announcement of a 14-count indictment.
The New Jersey lawmaker has been accused of accepting nearly $1 million in “lavish gifts” from Salomon Melgen, an affluent Florida optometrist and longtime friend, in exchange for political favors. Melgen was also seeking Menendez’s support on the visa applications of several of his girlfriends, according to the indictment.
“I will not be silenced,” Menendez said, blaming the charges on officials at the justice department he claimed had been “tricked into starting this investigation three years ago.”
“I am confident at the end of the day I will be vindicated and they will be exposed,” he added.
Sen. Cory Booker, the junior senator from New Jersey, offered his support to Menendez in a statement on Wednesday.
“Senator Menendez has never wavered in his commitment to the people of New Jersey. He’s been an invaluable resource and a mentor to me since I arrived in the Senate,” he said. “Our system of justice is designed to be fair and impartial, and it presumes innocence before guilt. I won’t waver in my commitment to stand alongside my senior Senator to serve our great state. Our nation and state face critical issues and I will continue to partner with Senator Menendez to take on the challenges before us.”
Menendez could provide a crucial vote in the ongoing Senate battle to confirm attorney general nominee Loretta Lynch, and he is the leading sponsor of the Iran Nuclear Weapon Free Act of 2015, a piece of bipartisan legislation which would restore and impose new sanctions on Iran if they don’t make a deal with the U.S. to dismantle their nuclear weapons program.
“Bob Menendez has been an excellent partner for me on the Iran stuff, and I’m worried now by leaking stuff [from] Justice it’s politically motivated to silence Bob for his work on Iran, which he should be praised for,” said Republican Sen. Mark Kirk on Monday.
Kirk co-sponsored the Iran legislation with Menendez, and the move has made the New Jersey Democrat an unlikely ally of some conservatives.
“The people of this great state have elected me to serve and represent their interests in the United States Senate and that is exactly what I will do, no matter how long it takes to clear my good name,” Menendez told the press Wednesday. “New Jersey is my home and I will continue to fight for you.”