Trump circus overshadows Menendez trial

Andrew Giuliani broke away from the press scrum across the street from former President Donald Trump’s hush money trial Tuesday and, holding his phone aloft as he livestreamed the latest from Lower Manhattan, promised his audience “more coverage here shortly.”

Asked about the other trial of note in the area – around the corner, less than 500 feet away – the son of former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani squinted into the middle distance from Manhattan Criminal Court, where the defense had just rested its case.

After a brief, confused silence, he smiled. “That’s right, of course,” the onetime candidate for New York governor said. “Forgot about that.”

He’s not the only one.

Sen. Bob Menendez’s corruption trial, which began eight days ago in the nearby US District Court, has been an afterthought to just about everyone – Republican, Democrat, hot dog vendor – in this maze of government buildings, bodegas, tiny green parks and chain coffee shops. The New Jersey Democrat has been charged by federal prosecutors with accepting bribes worth hundreds of thousands of dollars – some of the payments allegedly delivered in the form of gold bars – in exchange for assorted favors for a trio of local businessmen and two foreign governments and then conspiring to cover it up after being indicted.

The 70-year-old has insisted on his innocence, as have his two co-defendants, who have also pleaded not guilty.

In a different place and time, the trial of a sitting member of the US Senate – who until recently chaired the chamber’s powerful Foreign Relations Committee – would dominate the local tabloids, be the center of a national partisan melee and appear, at least occasionally, on the itinerary of Republicans gathering daily about a tenth of a mile away.

But this is 2024, a presidential election year, and Trump – with former fixer Michael Cohen and porn star Stormy Daniels captivating in supporting roles – often feels like the only show in town. So it goes for Menendez, who is likely pleased to have his legal drama playing out in relative obscurity. It’s a similar dynamic for his Democratic colleagues as they navigate the final months of his term and, as most political observers expect, their 51-49 Senate majority.

On Tuesday, as a witness for the prosecution in the senator’s case testified about his role in delivering what he called a loan of more than $20,000, with no interest attached, to Menendez’s now-wife from one of the co-defendants, a laundry list of Republican lawmakers and Trump pals, led by Donald Trump Jr., held court with reporters around the corner.

Their message echoed that of the rotating cast of loyalists who have argued during breaks in Trump’s trial that Manhattan District Attorney Alvin Bragg, at the direction of vengeful Democratic partisans, is using “lawfare” reminiscent of what Texas Rep. Ronny Jackson called “every little tin-pot dictatorship across the world” against the once and future GOP presidential nominee.

“When (Trump-friendly witness) Bob Costello was trying to answer on cross-examination today, the prosecutors were cutting him off. They didn’t want him to tell the full truth,” former Florida Attorney General Pam Bondi said Tuesday, her voice nearly drowned out by chanting from Trump supporters gathered in an adjacent park. Shortly afterward, similar remarks by Missouri Sen. Eric Schmitt were cut off by a passerby, who stopped to vigorously declare Donald Trump Jr. “a phony m*therf**ker.”

Others taking their turns included the former president’s son, former acting US Attorney General Matt Whitaker, former Trump adviser Sebastian Gorka, Texas Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, Jackson, and Reps. María Elvira Salazar of Florida, Troy Nehls of Texas, Dale Strong of Alabama and Daniel Webster of Florida.

None of the speakers made mention of Menendez, nor of the allegations of the Democrat’s dealings with the Egyptian government and its functionaries. Instead they summoned the likes of North Korea and Vladimir Putin’s Russia to add a slap of color to the injustices, they said, that now confront the former president.

In the nearly nine months since Menendez was indicted – making him the first US senator to be charged in two separate criminal cases – his most outspoken critics have come from within his own ranks. Democrats in New Jersey, including Sen. Cory Booker, have largely abandoned him. Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer did not call on Menendez to step down after the indictment landed, though he expressed contentment that his longtime colleague decided to cede his Foreign Relations Committee post.

More than any Republican, Sen. John Fetterman, a Pennsylvania Democrat, has been the most vocal of any elected official in Washington, describing Menendez as “really a senator for Egypt, not New Jersey.” Late last year, he trolled his colleague by hiring former New York Rep. George Santos, who had just been expelled from Congress over a dazzling assortment of alleged lies and misdeeds, to record a video on the Cameo app calling for Menendez to go.

More recently, Fetterman mocked the senator’s defense, which relies in part on pointing the finger of blame on Nadine Menendez, his wife.

“I really can’t imagine who – either it was his idea or he was convinced that blaming your wife, who is suffering from cancer, is really an effective strategy or how that’s going to go over,” Fetterman told on CNN’s Jake Tapper on Sunday on “State of the Union.” (Per a press release from her husband, Nadine Menendez, who is also charged in the case and is set to be tried separately this summer, has been diagnosed with advanced breast cancer and will undergo a mastectomy.)

Republicans in Washington, as they’ve done during these first two weeks of the Menendez trial in New York, have been consistently deferential to the New Jersey Democrat. Minority Leader Mitch McConnell in September called the indictment “an issue for the Democrats to deal with.”

Other GOP officials went so far as to encourage Menendez, a staunch, pro-Israel foreign policy hawk, to hold on to his seat as long as he was able.

“That’s the thing for Republicans,” North Dakota Sen. Kevin Cramer told Politico last year. “Having a Democrat who is so hawkish as a chairman is kind of an encouragement.”

Their tune, of course, could change if a Republican Senate candidate in New Jersey emerges as a serious contender. (The GOP primary hopefuls so far, however, largely appear to be toeing the Trump line – not exactly a winning strategy in the true-blue Garden State.) Menendez is not running for reelection in the Democratic primary and an independent bid, which he’s teased, seems far-fetched. Rep. Andy Kim, a popular Democrat from South Jersey, is expected to win the nomination to succeed Menendez.

But on a steamy May morning in New York City, Menendez’s fate was, at most, a distant concern. Andrew Giuliani, pressed for a thought on the senator’s trial or the allegations against him, shrugged.

“I’d like to see a better explanation for the gold bars for the defense, I guess. But I just haven’t been following it as much as this here,” he said, asking a reporter, “What is it, in the second or third week?”

CNN’s Sabrina Souza contributed to this report.

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