Political News

Cory Booker, Lindsey Graham testify at Menendez bribery trial

Posted October 25, 2017 3:53 p.m. EDT
Updated October 26, 2017 11:38 a.m. EDT

— A courtroom in New Jersey briefly turned into a rare scene of bipartisan unity Thursday as Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham and Democratic Sen. Cory Booker came to the defense of Democratic Sen. Bob Menendez, both taking the witness stand to defend their colleague facing federal bribery charges.

Taking a deep breath, Booker said that Menendez is trustworthy and honest, speaking directly to the jury about his fellow New Jersey Democrat.

"I'm the only US senator in our country that when I come home, I come home here to Newark -- I live a couple miles from here," Booker said, captivating the jury for roughly 10 minutes on the witness stand.

"I don't care who you are in America -- Italian, Irish, Korean, Black or Latina -- you are not that far away from struggle, poverty, and hurt. Some of us forget where we come from. But what I think is honorable about Bob is ... Bob has not forgotten where he comes from. He is someone who has known poverty and insecurity and what is honorable about him to me is that when I go home, and I am reminded of who I'm fighting for, I know Bob Menendez doesn't just have my back but has their backs," Booker testified.

Prosecutors have accused Menendez of accepting free rides on private jets from Dr. Salomon Melgen, a wealthy ophthalmologist from Florida, and then failing to report the gifts on his Senate disclosure forms as part of an effort to conceal their bribery scheme for years.

Booker elicited soft laughter in the courtroom as he told the jury about his swearing-in ceremony where he had to vote quickly and froze, thinking to himself, "do you pull a lever or press a button?" -- but Menendez was standing next to him, leaned over and told him to say, "Aye."

Graham, who spoke for roughly seven minutes, described Menendez as an honest broker in the Senate, working across political lines even though the two rarely agree.

"He's someone you can go to as a Republican to see if you can find bipartisanship," Graham said, explaining to jurors that the pair had worked on comprehensive immigration reform and the Iranian nuclear agreement together in the past. "In very difficult circumstances he always keeps his word -- a handshake is all you need from Bob."

With tears in eyes, a visibly moved Menendez said he was "honored" Graham and Booker came to testify as he entered the courthouse Thursday morning.

When asked about the emotion from Menendez, Graham told reporters after he testified: "It's been hard on him."

Graham's office said that he was traveling to New Jersey for the trial "at his own personal expense" in a written statement Thursday.

Prosecutor Peter Koski asked Booker and Graham only a single question about whether they had been in court for the past eight weeks to hear all of the evidence presented to the jury. They both said no and departed, shaking Menendez's hand on the way out.

Eighth week of trial wraps up

All week, jurors have heard from a cast of characters specifically attesting to Menendez's honesty -- including a bishop, a refugee from Cyprus and an autism rights advocate.

"I found him to be forthright and honest -- a person of integrity," said Bishop Reginald Jackson, who told jurors he'd known Menendez for over 20 years. "He always did what he said he was going to do."

Thursday's testimony is particularly notable given that most senators -- especially on the Democratic side of the aisle -- have been mum on Menendez's case throughout the trial.

Menendez and Melgen deny the bribery allegations, and several witnesses have described the men as longtime close friends -- including Robert Kelly, the senator's scheduler who told jurors the free plane rides weren't listed on the Senate disclosure forms because he believed there was "friendship exemption."

Kelly described his scramble to piece together his boss' travel history after a 2012 "salacious, false press article" raised questions about the relationship between Menendez and Melgen, and said his work was being supervised by Perkins Coie attorney Marc Elias.

Elias has found himself at the center of a different political firestorm this week with revelations that he retained an intelligence firm to conduct opposition research on then-presidential candidate Donald Trump as part of his law firm's representation of the Hillary Clinton campaign.

It remains unclear whether Menendez will ultimately take the witness stand in his own defense as the eighth week of trial wraps up Thursday.

CORRECTION: An earlier version of this story misidentified the country of origin for a refugee who testified on Menendez's behalf. The refugee was from Cyprus.