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Sen. Bob Menendez's Egypt trip planning got "weird," staffer recalls at bribery trial

Key witness on stand in Menendez trial
Insurance broker continues testimony in Bob Menendez trial 04:39

A Senate staffer testified at a bribery trial that planning for Sen. Bob Menendez's 2021 trip to Egypt and Qatar got "weird" after the Democrat directed that Egypt be included in the process.

Sarah Arkin, a senior staffer with the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, testified Monday as a government witness at a trial over bribes of hundreds of thousands of dollars in gold and cash allegedly paid to the senator in return for benefits he supposedly delivered to three New Jersey businessmen from 2018 to 2022.

Among favors he allegedly carried out, one included improperly pressuring a Department of Agriculture official to protect a lucrative halal certification monopoly the Egyptian government had awarded to one businessman. 

Then, prosecutors say, he aided a prominent New Jersey real estate developer by acting favorably to Qatar's government so the businessman could score a lucrative deal with a Qatari investment fund.

Besides charges of bribery, fraud, extortion and obstruction of justice, Menendez is also charged with acting as a foreign agent of Egypt. 

Menendez and two businessmen who allegedly paid him bribes have pleaded not guilty to the charges. A third testified earlier at the trial which entered its seventh week. When Menendez was charged last fall, he held the powerful post of chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, a position he relinquished soon afterward.

In her testimony, Arkin said Menendez had asked Senate staff to reach out to an individual at the Egyptian embassy who they didn't know as they planned the weeklong trip to both countries, even though such excursions were usually planned through the State Department and U.S. authorities.

Although foreign embassies were routinely notified about any U.S. legislators who were traveling their way, Arkin portrayed it as unusual that a trip by a U.S. senator would be planned in conjunction with a foreign embassy.

Later, Arkin said, she was told Menendez was "very upset" after he'd been notified that two Egyptians, including Egypt's ambassador, had complained that she notified Egyptian officials that Menendez would not meet with Egypt's president during the trip "under any circumstances." She said she was told that the senator didn't want her to go on the trip.

She testified that she told Menendez that the claim that she told anyone that he would not meet with Egypt's president was "absolutely not true" and that she would never use stern language such as "under no circumstances" even if he declined to meet with someone.

Arkin said another Senate staffer working to plan the trip wrote to her that "all of this Egypt stuff is very weird."

"It was weird," she said. Arkin said she was "not an idiot" and "would not have phrased anything that way" by saying the senator would not meet a foreign president of a nation important to the United States "under any circumstances."

Questioned by Assistant U.S. Attorney Daniel Richenthal, Arkin also mentioned that Menendez's wife, Nadine Menendez, was "trying to be involved in the planning" and had "lots of opinions" about what she wanted to do during the trip.

Nadine Menendez also has pleaded not guilty in the case, but her trial has been postponed so that she can recover from breast cancer surgery.

As he left the courthouse Monday, Menendez said Arkin could have gone on the trip if she wanted, but she "chose not to go."

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