Democratic leader defends Cuellar: Charges ‘very different’ from Santos, Menendez

The head of the House Democratic Caucus defended the right of Rep. Henry Cuellar (D-Texas) to remain in Congress while his criminal trial runs its course, saying the Texas Democrat — recently indicted on bribery and foreign influence charges — is presumed innocent “just like every American.”

“He’s entitled to make his defense, he’s entitled to the presumption of innocence,” Rep. Pete Aguilar (D-Calif.) told reporters in the Capitol. “Just like every American, he’s entitled to that presumption. I think that’s the overwhelming feeling of House Democrats at this point.”

Aguilar has been tougher on other lawmakers facing indictments in recent months. He supported the expulsion of former Rep. George Santos (R-N.Y.) in December and a couple of months prior, he called for the resignation of Sen. Bob Menendez (D-N.J.). Both are facing federal charges related to financial corruption.

Aguilar defended that distinction, saying the circumstances surrounding Cuellar’s indictment are “very different” from those of the other two. He characterized Cuellar as a serious legislator with a long history of public service, in contrast to the first-term Santos, who had fabricated large parts of his biography to gain a campaign edge.

“He has deep relationships … on both sides of the aisle. We know that he is a serious public official, public servant. And I think that’s what sets this apart from other issues and the silliness of George Santos that we had in the past. And I think that’s why many of us are treating this a little different,” Aguilar said. “The substance of the allegations is very different, but the individuals are also night and day.”

Pressed about the distinction surrounding the Menendez indictment, Aguilar suggested the evidence in that case — which included publicly released Justice Department (DOJ) photos of cash and gold bars allegedly stashed by the New Jersey senator — set it apart from Cuellar’s indictment.

“I think that these are very different,” Aguilar said. “There were some pictures, and there were some things that were very different with respect to the allegations. So, look, he’s entitled to the presumption of innocence.”

The comments echo those of House Minority Leader Hakeem Jeffries (D-N.Y.), who had issued a brief statement shortly after Cuellar’s indictment describing him as “a valued member” of the party.

“Like any American, Congressman Cuellar is entitled to his day in court and the presumption of innocence throughout the legal process,” Jeffries said.

Cuellar and his wife Imelda were indicted Friday in Texas on federal charges of bribery, money laundering and foreign influence peddling. The DOJ has accused the pair of accepting $600,000 in bribes from two separate businesses — a Mexican bank and a petroleum company run by the government of Azerbaijan. In return, Cuellar used his influence in Congress to push for policies beneficial to both, according to the DOJ.

Both Cuellars appeared in court in Houston on Friday and were released after posting a $100,000 bond. Both have denied any wrongdoing, although Cuellar has stepped down from his committee assignments in the Capitol while the legal process runs its course.

That, Aguilar said, was “the right thing” to do.

“These are incredibly serious allegations, and the Democratic Caucus treats these with the utmost respect,” Aguilar said. “He’s entitled to that presumption of innocence, as any American would [be].”

Santos, for his part, is accusing Democrats of hypocrisy for supporting his expulsion while defending Cuellar’s right to keep his seat while the courts proceed.

But former President Trump, who has been indicted on dozens of charges, is racing to Cuellar’s defense, saying the Texas Democrat — whose support for tougher border security policies has long bucked his party’s platform — is the victim of a “weaponized” DOJ.

“Biden just Indicted Henry Cuellar because the Respected Democrat Congressman wouldn’t play Crooked Joe’s Open Border game,” Trump posted on his Truth Social website. “He was for Border Control, so they said, ‘Let’s use the FBI and DOJ to take him out!’ This is the way they operate.”

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