One of Australia’s key allies in US Senate faces calls to resign
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Washington: One of the most high-profile AUKUS allies in the US Congress is facing a growing stampede of Democrat colleagues urging him to resign after he pleaded not guilty over an alleged scheme that involved taking bribes in exchange for helping the Egyptian government with military aid.
Days after federal prosecutors revealed the explosive allegations against Senator Bob Menendez, more than half of Senate Democrats are now demanding he step down amid fears the case could undercut their attack against Donald Trump’s criminal charges ahead of next year’s election.
Bob Menendez has pleaded not guilty over corruption chargesCredit: AP
The most damning shift came from party whip Dick Durban, the second-highest ranking Democrat in the chamber, who had initially declined to say Menendez should leave office but changed course on Wednesday (Thursday AEST) saying it was clear his colleague “could no longer serve”.
But despite facing calls from at least 23 of the 51 Democrats in the US Senate, Menendez remained defiant today as he and his wife Nadine pleaded not guilty to a bribery scheme that allegedly involved getting gifts of gold bars, a luxury car, and cash.
In return, Menendez allegedly used his position as chair of the powerful Senate Foreign Relations Committee to help the Egyptian government with weapons and aid, as well as three businessmen from his home state of New Jersey who have also been charged.
Anthony Albanese, Joe Biden and Rishi Sunak at the AUKUS announcement in San Diego in March.Credit: Alex Ellinghausen
Menendez, 69, is a China hawk and one of Congress’ most senior proponents of AUKUS, the military pact in which the US and Britain will help Australia acquire nuclear-propelled submarines.
In a committee hearing in Congress earlier this month, he described the trilateral agreement as “a generational opportunity that will enhance US national security interests by transforming our alliances, deterring aggression from the People’s Republic of China, and fostering a more peaceful and stable Indo-Pacific”.
He also called out Beijing for “aggressively trying to influence Australian politics and civil society, buying critical infrastructure, like port facilities in Darwin, making political donations, even hacking Australian parliament and major political parties”.
“This is a critical moment in which the United States needs to show we are serious about our commitment to a free and open Indo-Pacific,” he said.
Menendez and his wife were arraigned in the same US district court in Manhattan where Trump was found liable earlier this year of sexually abusing and defaming New York writer E. Jean Carroll.
According to the indictment, Menendez shared sensitive secret information from the US government, including about military aid to Egypt. He also allegedly pressured a high-ranking US agriculture official to help a halal meat company owned by one of his co-defendants.
Federal agents searched his New Jersey home in June last year and found more than $480,000 in cash, some stuffed in envelopes and hidden in clothing, gold bars worth more than $100,000 and other items allegedly paid for by the three businessmen.
However, he has repeatedly denied wrongdoing and said on Monday that the cash found by agents was withdrawn from his personal savings account and kept for “emergencies,” as has been his practice for decades.
Damian Williams, a US attorney in New York, shows photos of evidence collected against Bob Menendez.Credit: AP
But this is not the first time the US Senator has faced court: in 2017 he faced trial in a separate federal corruption case connected to claims he accepted private flights, campaign contributions and other bribes from a wealthy patron in exchange for official favours. However, the jury ended in deadlock and he was ultimately acquitted.
Fellow New Jersey Senator Cory Booker was a character witness for him in the previous case, but has since joined the chorus of Democrats urging him to stand down.
Others include former House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, senior Democrat Amy Klobushar, and Philadelphia freshman John Fetterman, who was the first Senator to call for Menendez’s resignation.
However, the top Democrat in the Senate, Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, has stopped short of doing so – at least for now – saying last week: “Bob Menendez has been a dedicated public servant and is always fighting hard for the people of New Jersey… He has a right to due process and a fair trial.”
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