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5 takeaways from bombshell testimony in Bob Menendez’s corruption trial

By Gregory Krieg, Sabrina Souza and Nicki Brown, CNN

(CNN) — One month after Sen. Bob Menendez’s corruption trial began, and with weeks of testimony still to come, the prosecution and its witnesses have painted a politically damning portrait of the New Jersey Democrat, who chaired the powerful Senate Foreign Relations Committee until stepping down last fall after being indicted.

But for all the sharp angles and colorful flourishes delivered by witnesses for the government – none more so than turncoat businessman Jose Uribe, who pleaded guilty to multiple counts as part of a cooperation agreement that put him on the stand for parts of the past four days – some of the underlying questions from the beginning of the trial still appear unresolved.

Uribe delivered the most detailed testimony to date placing Menendez, 70, at the center of an alleged bribery scheme in which he had previously appeared as a marginal figure. Instead, it had been the senator’s then-girlfriend (and now wife), Nadine, appearing in nearly every scene of the legal drama – prosecutors describing her as a glorified fixer for her partner; the defense insisting she was pulling the strings herself.

Nadine, who along with her husband and co-defendants Wael Hana, an Egyptian American businessman, and New Jersey real estate developer Fred Daibes, has pleaded not guilty to their alleged roles in the scheme, is expected to go on trial separately in August. The senator disclosed last month that his wife has breast cancer. Together, the four have been accused of assorted roles in the alleged bribery scheme, spanning from cattle slaughterhouses in the American Midwest to the inner workings of the Egyptian government.

Here are five takeaways from the prosecution’s case, and the defense’s pushback, as the trial enters its second month.

For whom the (tiny) bell tolls

The story, as Uribe told it, was a thrilling one.

Face-to-face at last, following months of drinks, dinners and written correspondence with Nadine, Uribe was alone with the senator in September 2019. They were seated at a patio table in the backyard of Nadine’s suburban home and, after a brief chat, Menendez asked Uribe for the names of the associates he was trying to shield from prosecution or investigation.

Realizing he had nothing to write on, Uribe testified, Menendez called out “mon amour” to Nadine and then rang a small bell on the table. At that, Nadine emerged from inside with paper. Uribe scribbled the details for Menendez, who pocketed the information.

The next morning, Menendez welcomed then-New Jersey Attorney General Gurbir Grewal to his Newark office, where he raised concerns with the state’s top prosecutor, according to Grewal’s account, about an ongoing criminal case. (Grewal testified that Menendez never explicitly identified the case or the defendants by name.) Following the brief meeting, Grewal’s deputy who had accompanied him rendered his verdict: “Whoa, that was gross.”

But if Menendez had been rebuffed, his subsequent actions suggested otherwise. Nadine told Uribe to meet Menendez at the senator’s apartment building, where Menendez, per Uribe, told him, “That thing that you asked me about (last night), it doesn’t seem to be anything there.”

For Uribe, who told the court he wanted all the probes “stopped and killed,” this registered as qualified good news. He texted an associate saying it had been a “good meeting” and that Menendez felt “very positive.”

The “peace” that Uribe craved, though, would not come until months later, when he testified that Menendez, called from his office on Capitol Hill with more definitive word.

“That thing that you asked me about,” he began again, “there’s nothing there. I give you your peace.”

Days later, Uribe, a friend, the senator and Nadine gathered at an upscale North Jersey restaurant to celebrate – not their alleged deal, which never came up, but the future Menendezes’ engagement. Jurors saw a picture of the foursome with champagne glasses in hand, sharing a toast after diners at another table had sent over a bottle.

That might have been the end of the story, but the most sensational testimony had yet to come. After months apart, largely because of the Covid-19 pandemic, Uribe was again sitting for a meal with Bob Menendez and Nadine. This time, Nadine’s adult daughter was also present.

At some point, Menendez quietly texted Nadine, “Can you go to (the) bathroom?”

Uribe was, once again, alone with Menendez. The senator, he testified, sat back in his chair, hands across his stomach, and spoke in Spanish.

“I saved your ass twice,” Menendez said, according to Uribe. “Not once, but twice.”

The Bob-father?

Lovestruck naif or the all-knowing boss of a carefully managed alleged criminal network?

The defense has often sought to portray Menendez as a victim of sorts, at worst an unwitting accomplice to his glamourous new girlfriend’s corrupt machinations. Prosecutors, with Uribe as their star witness, have called that claim nonsense.

Menendez “used Nadine as his go-between to deliver messages to and from the people paying bribes,” prosecutor Lara Pomerantz said in her opening statement, after telling the jury that the alleged episode “was not politics as usual,”

“This was politics for profit,” she said, “a US senator on the take.”

From there, the government has fought the perception, advanced by the defense, that Menendez had a limited view into Nadine’s world – they even had separate phone plans, the defense noted – and could not have known what she was promising Uribe, Hana and others.

Menendez attorney Avi Weitzman described his client as being smitten by Nadine, a “beautiful and tall, international woman,” who entered his life as a romantic prospect shortly after another corruption case against Menendez was dropped following a mistrial.

The defense also tried and failed to call a psychiatrist as a witness to testify that “intergenerational trauma” – in Menendez’s case, Fidel Castro’s seizure of power, and property, in communist Cuba – led the anxious senator to keep the now infamous bricks of cash in his home, stuffed in jackets, closets and boots.

Prosecutors, through testimony from Uribe and, before him, a former senior official at the US Department of Agriculture, sought to rubbish the defense’s suggestions.

Ted McKinney, the undersecretary for trade and foreign agricultural affairs, testified that in May 2019 Menendez told him to stop interfering with the workings of a mysterious new halal meat certification firm, based in New Jersey and owned by Hana, that suddenly became the sole Egyptian-sanctioned US operator.

McKinney testified he understood what Menendez told him over the phone: “to stand down and stop doing all of the things that we were doing” to probe the arrangement. McKinney said he demurred but felt that Menendez was trying to inappropriately pressure him.

Other prosecution witnesses, like Grewal, depicted Menendez in a similar way: cautious with his words, but plainly comfortable exercising his power in the form of pointed, informal conversations and inquiries into their work. Uribe delivered the most striking picture – of Menendez calling him from his Senate office to confirm he had delivered on Nadine’s promise and then crowing about it at their dinner months later, suggesting it hadn’t been that heavy a lift after all.

The two Nadines

Nadine Menendez, though absent from court, has loomed over nearly all the proceedings.

The prosecution calls her the central conduit of cash, gifts – including the infamous Mercedes Benz convertible – and information traded among the defendants and other unindicted parties. But still, only that: a connector or “go-between.”

The defense, however, says that undersells her influence. Menendez’s lawyers have accused her of hiding her financial troubles from her then-boyfriend and keeping him in the dark about key pieces of her negotiations with a rogues’ gallery of local business operators.

Her delayed trial is slated for August, but for now, for her husband and his lawyers, she stands as the clearest buffer between the senator and a laundry list of alleged criminality. Through weeks of testimony, and most sharply over the past four days in court, it has been Nadine’s text messages, with Uribe and others, driving the case.

The jury will likely need to decide which version of Nadine they believe to be closest to the truth – a reckoning that will be intertwined with their perception of her husband.

Unanswered questions

Even after nearly five weeks, many of the crucial issues at the crux of the case remain either in doubt or are being fiercely contested.

Uribe said he didn’t know how the senator would have carried out a plan to try to obtain a more favorable outcome for an Uribe associate and then quash a wider investigation that threatened Uribe’s close friends and relatives, as prosecutors have insisted.

Testimony with insight into these matters has either focused on the “before” or the “after.” The alleged crimes themselves, the “how” and the “when” remain murky. Prosecutors will likely ask jurors to make simple, logical inferences using a combination of testimony and documentary evidence, like text messages, to come to what they’ve suggested is a simple, logical conclusion.

But with the defense aggressively seeking to undermine Uribe, who had an estimable rap sheet even before getting involved with Menendez, what appeared clear-cut at first glance is now at least a little murkier.

Adam Fee, a lawyer for Menendez, drilled down hard from the beginning of his cross-examination.

“You’re a very good liar, aren’t you?,” Fee said to Uribe, before questioning nearly every aspect of the businessman’s testimony and suggesting Wednesday that Uribe’s admitted use of Xanax, an anti-anxiety medication he was not prescribed, and alcohol made his memory – and so his testimony – wholly unreliable. (Uribe denied ever being intoxicated during meetings with Menendez.)

Where do we go from here?

With Uribe’s excusal, the trial quickly pivoted to co-defendant Daibes, whom prosecutors say Menendez sought to help with a pending criminal case in 2020.

He did so, the prosecution said, by trying to influence who would fill the role of US attorney for the District of New Jersey, a federal position. Philip Sellinger, who now holds the job but was a potential pick during a meeting with Menendez shortly after Joe Biden was elected president, told the court that Menendez had brought up Daibes’ case during their sitdown.

“Sen. Menendez mentioned that Fred Daibes had a case before the US attorney’s office, and Sen. Menendez believed that he was being treated – he, Mr. Daibes – was being treated unfairly, and Sen. Menendez hoped that if I became US attorney that I would look at it carefully,” Sellinger testified Wednesday afternoon.

After another conversation in which Sellinger says he told Menendez he might have to recuse himself from any case involving Daibes because of conflicts pre-dating 2020, the buzz quieted. Later, Sellinger testified, the senator informed him that he would not boost his bid for the US attorney position.

“He told me that he was unable to have the White House nominate me and therefore he wasn’t going to recommend it,” Sellinger recalled. “He did not say specifically why.”

After the eventual nominee, Esther Suarez, fell out of favor, Sellinger said he spoke to Menendez again in the spring of 2021. A top aide to Menendez later called to “follow up” on Sellinger’s previous chats with the senator. By December, Sellinger had been nominated by the White House, confirmed by the Senate and sworn into his post.

Menendez, he said, did not bring up Daibes again, but Sellinger was informed by the Justice Department shortly after taking office that while he could not participate in the case, his staff could continue working on it.

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