Sen. Bob Menendez is in the midst of what I’m calling a “Cuban dismissal crisis.”
The New Jersey Democrat and his wife, Nadine, have pleaded not guilty to federal bribery and extortion charges related to an alleged scheme in which prosecutors say the two used the senator’s influence to benefit three New Jersey businessmen and the Egyptian government. In exchange, the couple received “cash, gold bars, payments toward a home mortgage, compensation for a low-or-no-show job, a luxury vehicle and other items of value,” according to the indictment.
Menendez, a Cuban American, has painted the charges as an attack on his Latino heritage, as he did during a 2017 bribery trial that resulted in a hung jury.
“Those behind this campaign simply cannot accept that a first-generation Latino American from humble beginnings could rise to be a U.S. senator and serve with honor and distinction,” he said in a statement Friday.
Menendez claims he stashed hundreds of thousands of dollars in cash at his home because of lingering fears he had about government confiscations in Cuba.
“For 30 years, I have withdrawn thousands of dollars in cash from my personal savings account, which I have kept for emergencies, and because of the history of my family facing confiscation in Cuba,” the senator said at a news conference Monday. “Now this may seem old-fashioned, but these were monies drawn from my personal savings account, based on the income that I have lawfully derived over those 30 years.”
“Old-fashioned” is one way of putting it. “Weird as hell” is another.
Prosecutors say they found more than $480,000 in cash at the Menendezes’ New Jersey home, with “much of it stuffed into envelopes and hidden in clothing, closets, and a safe.” As my MSNBC colleague Steve Benen smartly noted earlier this week, Menendez is a longtime member of the Senate Banking Committee, so it stands to reason he knows that such storage methods aren’t safer than a bank.
Unfortunately for the senator, the “believe me, I’m Cuban” defense doesn’t appear to be working so well.
“Latinos face barriers and discrimination across the board in so many categories, including in our justice system; this is not that,” Rep. Pete Aguilar, D-Calif., said at a Wednesday news conference. Aguilar said “it would be best” for Menendez to resign.
Aguilar is the highest-ranking Latino Democrat in the House, and his remarks seem to deflate any hope Menendez may have had that fellow Latino lawmakers would swoop in and save him from condemnation.
Instead, Aguilar — and multiple other Latino Democrats — have dismissed Menendez’s “Cuban cash hoarder” defense. That includes Rep. Veronica Escobar of Texas, who told The Texas Tribune: “I absolutely agree there’s bias in our system. I don’t see it in this case.”
Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, a New York Democrat who also is calling on Menendez to resign, told Insider: “It’s an extremely serious matter to accuse the Department of Justice of that kind of racial bias. I think it would be helpful, if one were to make that kind of charge, to explain it.”
Rep. Monica De La Cruz, R-Texas, slammed Menendez’s defense as well, in a statement to The Washington Post: “Not only is the Senator playing the race card, he’s dealing it from the bottom of the deck. He has every right to defend himself, but ‘I’m Latino’ is not a credible criminal defense to corruption charges. These stereotypes do not help our community.”
From the look of it, they don’t appear to be helping Menendez all that much either.