Politics

Egypt, guns, money and power at center of Menendez indictment

The indictment of Sen. Bob Menendez on Friday accuses one of the most powerful senators shaping American foreign affairs of using his perch to enrich himself and exploit the complicated relationship between the United States and Egypt.

It is a story about guns, money and power that strikes at a fraught sector of American diplomacy.

Federal prosecutors claim that Menendez accepted money, a luxury car and gifts including gold from a group of businessmen in return for helping them and Egypt’s repressive regime.

Menendez denies any wrongdoing, saying prosecutors “misrepresented the normal work of a Congressional office” and attacked him and his wife. But if the allegations are proven, they will represent a damning account of how American policy toward an autocratic ally was compromised for years for venal reasons.

Egypt receives about $1.3 billion per year in foreign military financing, but by law, tranches of the aid are conditioned upon Egypt’s progress on human rights concerns, as determined by the State Department. Whether Foggy Bottom clears the aid is often subject to a regular tug-of-war between lawmakers, the advocacy community and the executive branch.

Traditionally, the State Department has honored requests to delay grants and weapons sales from the chair or the ranking member of the Senate committee.

Menendez, who has served as the top Democrat on the Foreign Relations Committee since 2018, has often been a public critic of the Egyptian government, rapping the Trump administration for inviting Egyptian President Abdel Fattah El-Sisi for a state visit in 2019 and pressing then-Secretary of State Mike Pompeo to raise human rights concerns with the leader.

But prosecutors claim Menendez was playing a different role behind the scenes.

Allegedly Menendez, starting in mid-2018, privately maintained close relations with Egyptian officials and businesspeople and readily shared sensitive information with his associates about U.S. policy toward Cairo.

In May 2018, Menendez allegedly disclosed to Hana at a private dinner that a U.S. government ban on sales of small arms and ammunition to Egypt has been lifted, which Hana passed on to the Egyptian official.

Later that month, Menendez allegedly ghost-wrote Cairo’s lobbying pitch to other U.S. senators seeking support for the release of $300 million in U.S. aid to Egypt.

In July, after meeting with Egyptian military officials, Menendez allegedly had Nadine tell Hana that he was signing off on the sale of 46,000 120mm target practice rounds and 10,000 rounds of tank ammunition worth $99 million.

“NOTE: These tank rounds are for tanks they have had for many years. They are using these in the Sinai for the counter-terrorism campaign,” Menendez allegedly said in a text to Nadine, which she forwarded to Hana.

The State Department two months later announced it had approved the sale of the package of General Dynamics-made high-explosive and armor-piercing rounds, to help Cairo fight Islamic State militants, and the target rounds, to train M1 Abrams tank crews.

Adrienne Watson, the White House National Security Council spokesperson, said “no comment” when contacted for this story. Spokespersons for the State Department did not immediately respond to requests for comment.

“Not really,” Motaz Zahran, Egypt’s ambassador in Washington, said when asked if he had comment.

Menendez is also accused of intervening in Egyptian diplomatic entanglements and pushing for the U.S. to put its finger on the scales for Cairo.

After taking a meeting with an Egyptian official dubbed “the general”, prosecutors allege Menendez waded into a long-standing diplomatic dispute between Egypt, Sudan and Ethiopia over access to the Nile River and a large Ethiopian dam project near the river’s source waters.

The construction of the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam has long been a top foreign priority for Egypt, as Cairo depends on unfettered water flows from the Nile to sustain its population, which is almost entirely concentrated along the river’s delta and banks.

Writing in April 2020 to then-Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin and Pompeo to express concerns over “stalled negotiations between Egypt, Ethiopia, and Sudan over [the Dam]. Menendez called on the administration to “significantly increase the State Department’s engagement on negotiations” around the dam, according to the indictment.

Menendez in February 2018 reclaimed his post as the top panel’s top Democrat just days after the Justice Department dropped different corruption charges against him. At the time, Menendez was accused of intervening in a Dominican port contract dispute to benefit a Florida ophthalmologist and businessperson who had given Menendez large campaign donations.

Menendez voluntarily stepped back from the job in 2015 after he was charged, with an understanding from then-Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) that he would be reinstated if cleared of charges.

It’s unclear if Menendez will step back from his role this time around, or if he did, who would temporarily replace him as chair.

“Democratic leadership of the committee is the responsibility of the Democratic leadership in the Senate,” said Suzanne Wrasse, a spokesperson for the panel’s ranking member, Sen. Jim Risch (R-Idaho). “There is precedent on these types of issues in their conference. Senator Risch hopes to hear from the Democrat leader as soon as possible so the committee’s important work can go on uninterrupted.”

Matt Berg and Nahal Toosi contributed to this report. 

Publicly a critic of Cairo, privately, prosecutors allege the senator used his influence to benefit Egypt.  

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