As Sen. Robert Menendez prepares to face corruption charges, Republicans are confident and Democrats fearful that the taint of a weekslong trial will snare other prominent Democrats in New Jersey and Washington.
The trial kicks off Wednesday in New Jersey, where the 11-year incumbent senator is accused of using his office to try to assist and protect a longtime friend, Dr. Salomon Melgen, in disputes with the Center for Medicare and Medicaid Services.
One high-profile Democrat already has been caught in the backwash. Former Senate Democratic Leader Harry Reid, who retired last year, was fingered as trying to help Mr. Menendez in his efforts to derail a federal probe of Melgen.
“Who knows who else will be implicated, but it’s clear now that the corruption extended beyond Menendez’s office,” said Michael Ahrens, a spokesman for the Republican National Committee. “It’s just as stunning that no Senate Democrat has said Menendez should resign immediately if convicted.”
Mr. Menendez had asked the judge to allow him to skip out on the trial so he could be in Washington for upcoming votes. The judge rejected his request, saying he is no different from any other worker whose schedule is set by others but who has to be in court to face prosecutors.
In a detailed statement last week, those prosecutors outlined the case against Mr. Menendez, whom they indicted in 2015 on accusations of taking roughly $1 million in gifts — including airplane flights and stays at lavish resorts and hotels frequented by Hollywood A-listers such as George Clooney and Beyonce — in exchange for political favors for Melgen.
Prosecutors say Mr. Menendez helped Melgen obtain visas for girlfriends from Brazil, the Dominican Republic and Ukraine. It also said Mr. Menendez used his office to try to shield his friend from accusations that he overbilled millions of dollars in Medicare payments.
Melgen pleaded guilty this year to conspiracy to commit fraud in billing and was charged in August with bribery in connection with Mr. Menendez. Late last week, Melgen was also indicted on 76 more counts of fraud.
Both Mr. Menendez and Melgen pleaded not guilty to the bribery charges, and their attorneys accused prosecutors last week of providing “lengthy, lurid and one-sided narrative of the case.’”
Kellyanne Conway, a Trump adviser, described the accusations against Mr. Menendez as “stunning.”
Other Republicans cheered the judge’s ruling that the senator must be present in the courtroom. Scott Sloofman of the America Rising political action committee said it “means that during critical September Senate votes, Sen. Menendez will be sitting in a New Jersey courtroom, not the floor of the Senate.”
“Sen. Menendez’s absence isn’t just costing Minority Leader Chuck Schumer a vote, it’s also humiliating other Senate Democrats,” he said.
The trial, meanwhile, is likely to be all the buzz in New Jersey and could overshadow the looming November election. Gov. Chris Christie, a Republican, is term-limited and is hoping to help a Republican succeed him.
“I think it is going to be the issue of the year in New Jersey,” said John Graham, a member of the Democratic National Committee from New Jersey. “It is even being more anticipated than the gubernatorial race right now because Menendez is a very powerful and very well-respected senator.”
According to their case statement, Mr. Menendez in 2011 recruited Mr. Reid to reach out to the White House deputy chief of staff “informing her that Menendez was upset about how a Florida ophthalmologist was being treated by CMS and asking that she call the agency.”
“Recognizing the matter involved a dispute between a single doctor and an administrative agency, not a policy matter, the White House Deputy Chief of Staff demurred,” the brief says.
The next year, Mr. Melgen sent two checks totaling $600,000 to the Reid-led Majority PAC — earmarking the money for Mr. Menendez’s re-election campaign, according to prosecutors.
Mr. Menendez also tried, and failed, to get the head of CMS to reverse course. Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius also shot down his request to intervene after meeting with Mr. Menendez in Mr. Reid’s office, according to the brief.
Mr. Menendez was appointed to his Senate seat in January 2006 after Jon Corzine was elected governor. Mr. Menendez won a full term later that year and was re-elected in 2012.
The son of Cuban immigrants, he served as head of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee from 2013 to 2015. He gave up the post after he was indicted.
He is unique in the Senate in sending out press releases in Spanish, with an English translation below the Spanish version.
If Mr. Menendez is convicted, it would be a major headache for Democrats — particularly if the senator declines to resign.
“Even if those charges are not dismissed and he is convicted, it still would mean that 15 Democratic U.S. senators would have to vote to expel him from the Senate in a political climate where presumably Democrats would make the case that even a convicted U.S. senator who is a Democrat is important in providing an obstacle to the Trump agenda,” said Brigid Harrison, professor of political science and law at Montclair State University.
If Mr. Menendez does vacate the seat, Mr. Christie could name the replacement as long as the resignation is submitted before his term ends Jan. 17.
Steve Lonegan, a Republican who is looking to unseat Democratic Rep. Josh Gottheimer in New Jersey’s 5th Congressional District, said it wouldn’t surprise him if Mr. Christie picked himself.
“I wouldn’t blame him for that,” Mr. Lonegan said. “He could move from here to Washington for a year, and he could end his career — instead of going out on with a whimper — because his approval rate is so low, he could go out with a bang.”