Sen. Robert Menendez plans to take steps next month to force the Justice Department to decide whether to retry him on corruption charges – saying that public comments by jurors in his corruption trial bolster his doubts about the government's case.
If charges are dropped, Menendez (D., N.J.) said Thursday, he also expects to reclaim his perch as top Democrat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, a position he voluntarily relinquished in 2015 when he was indicted on multiple corruption charges.
The senator's monthslong trial ended last month when jurors deadlocked, and the Justice Department has not yet announced whether it plans to retry him.
Defiant in his first extended public comments since the trial, Menendez told a group of Latino reporters in his Capitol Hill office that he believes a decision from prosecutors "must come within the next 30 days" and that otherwise his lawyers will force a decision by citing federal speedy-trial guidelines.
"If you want to prosecute, bring it on," he added.
After the mistrial, jurors in the case against Menendez and the doctor on trial with him, Salomon Melgen, said the jury came close to an outright acquittal, with 10 jurors believing Menendez not guilty, and only two on the panel in favor of finding him guilty.
In subsequent interviews with his attorneys and prosecutors, Menendez said, the jurors "didn't believe in the theory" of the government's case. "They didn't believe in the facts. They had some really harsh words for the government."
"You can have a hung jury that's 10-2 against you and two people just couldn't agree, but when it's 10-2 for you – and it's not just the numbers, it's what they said about the government's case – I believe that's the end of it."
Prosecutors said Menendez took gifts from Melgen, including a luxury hotel stay, private jet flights, and campaign donations. In exchange, they alleged Menendez tried to help Melgen get U.S. visas for his girlfriends, intervened in the doctor's $8.9 million billing dispute with Medicare, and assisted with a port security contract of the doctor's in the Dominican Republic.
Melgen is awaiting sentencing for a previous conviction for defrauding Medicare. The two men were on trial for bribery, and Menendez was also accused of lying on government disclosure forms about his finances when he did not report gifts of flights paid for by Melgen – an omission the senator calls an accidental oversight, not a criminal lie.
Menendez said he spent a considerable amount of time with Melgen and his family during the trial. "I still have the greatest affection for them, and I wish him well."
A new trial could be politically perilous for Menendez, 63, who faces reelection next year. On Thursday, he declined to say whether he will seek reelection.
A majority of New Jersey voters say he should not be reelected next year, according to a Rutgers-Eagleton poll released Nov. 30. Forty-nine percent of poll respondents said Menendez should resign.
But Menendez said that if he is cleared of the charges, "I fully expect to go back to the ranking member" on Foreign Relations.
His reemergence atop the panel could be a politically difficult issue for Democrats, who have pushed out House and Senate members in recent weeks amid accusations of sexual misconduct.
The charges against Menendez are far different, but the National Republican Senatorial Committee is already targeting the senator, saying this week that Democrats are "unserious" about tax reform because they appointed "accused felon" Menendez to the House-Senate committee writing a compromise version of the GOP tax plan. The senator is also a senior member of the Senate Finance Committee.
Menendez said in the interview he has "a commitment from the leadership – including the leadership that exists today" that he will get his committee assignment back if charges are dropped.
Aides to Senate Minority Leader Charles Schumer (D., N.Y.) declined to comment. A spokesman for Sen. Benjamin Cardin (D., Md.), who has served as the ranking Democrat on Foreign Relations since Menendez stepped aside, didn't immediately respond to requests for comment.
The day of the mistrial, Menendez delivered an emotional speech on the steps of the federal courthouse in Newark, declaring, "Today is Resurrection Day."
He also issued an ominous warning: "For those who were digging my political grave so they could jump into my seat, I know who you are, and I won't forget it."
Asked during the interview who exactly was trying to dig his grave, Menendez jumped out of his seat, walked to his desk, and pulled out of his traveling bag two patches designed by a woman who he said was selling them at a Jersey City craft fair last weekend.
One of the patches said, "Today is Resurrection Day." The other is a red patch with Menendez's full grave digger quote.
"When my staffer went to go buy one, there was a line and the lady told us she has sold 800 of these at $10 apiece. So, I'm a job creator," Menendez quipped.
As for the grave diggers, "I know who they are, they know who they are, and they know I know who they are – and that's all that matters," he said.
The trial included testimony on behalf of Menendez from Sens. Cory Booker (D., N.J.) and Lindsey Graham (R., S.C.). Asked which of his Democratic colleagues should consider running for president in 2020, Menendez seemed to return the favor, giving a full-throated endorsement to Booker, who has said he has no plans to run for president.
"He's somebody who has unlimited potential; he just has to decide whether that's what he wants to do," Menendez said.