Sen. Bob Menendez’s much-anticipated trial has begun and we might have already been given a glimpse into the defense strategy his attorneys will use to try to exonerate their client. 

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The lawyers representing his co-defendants, who face charges related to bribery and corruption, appear to be pursuing a strategy that involves portraying the alleged bribes and favors as innocent exchanges between friends.

In their opening statements, defense attorneys representing businessmen Fred Daibes and Wael Hana argued that the prosecution’s case is predicated on the idea of guilt by association.

Lawrence Lustberg, Hana’s attorney, told the jury the prosecution’s case is about criminalizing friendships, gift giving and business successes after failure.

He argued the charges against his client are guilt by association, which cannot incriminate him in a case, and urged the jury to consider how much of this case is guilt by association.

Lustberg said Hana and the senator’s wife, Nadine Menendez, “supported each other emotionally as well as financially … like brother and sister. They cared about each other.”

The defense portrayed their relationship as one of mutual aid rather than corruption. Nadine helped Hana restart his life after setbacks, while Hana assisted Nadine with a loan when she faced financial difficulties.

They exchanged gifts, with Hana’s becoming more lavish as his business prospered. The defense urged the jury to consider the evidence impartially, emphasizing cultural norms regarding gift giving, particularly citing the exchange of gold bars commonly practiced in the Middle East.

“Listen to the evidence with an open mind,” Lustberg said.

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The attorneys countered the prosecution’s allegations of bribery by claiming that some of the gifts given to the senator and his wife, Nadine, were not bribes but loans that were supposedly repaid. Additionally, the relationship between the Menendezes and the businessmen was not about corruption, but mutual support and friendship. “The prosecution’s case is about criminalizing friendships, gift-giving, and business successes after failure,” Lustberg told the jury.

Cesar De Castro, representing Daibes, echoed Lustberg’s arguments, claiming that the exchange of gold bars and cash were merely acts of friendship, not payment for the lawmaker’s using his influence to benefit them and the Egyptian government.

On the other side of the coin, the prosecution, led by Lara Pomerantz, painted a damning picture of the relationship between the Menendezes and the businessmen, saying that “This was not politics as usual. This was politics for profit,” and described the lawmaker as “a United States senator on the take.”

The prosecutor said Menendez was “too smart” to communicate directly about the bribes through avenues like text messages and emails. Instead, he allegedly instructed his wife on how the transactions should be handled.

However, Menendez’s team, as we reported previously, also relied on the legal version of hurling his wife like a rag doll into the street as a bus careened over her like a speed bump. The aim appears to be to distance the lawmaker from the activities of his wife, saying that “Nadine had financial concerns that she kept from Bob.

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“Let me say this about Nadine: Nadine had financial concerns that she kept from Bob,” said the defence attorney, Mr Weitzman.

They led separate lives, Mr Weitzman said, with Mr Menendez often focused on helping his constituents from his seat in Washington.

“The government’s allegations that the senator sold his office and his loyalty to this country are outrageously false,” Mr Weitzman said. “Bob was doing his job, and he was doing it right.”

The couple was indicted in September and is alleged to have accepted various bribes in different forms, including gold bars, cash, and even a Mercedes-Benz in exchange for using the senator’s influence to benefit Daibes’ and Hana’s business operations. The lawmaker is also accused of providing aid to the Egyptian government without registering as a foreign agent.