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Menendez fights charges in court, courts public outside

FILE - In this Aug. 17, 2017 file photo, U.S. Sen. Bob Menendez speaks about flood insurance during a news conference, in Union Beach, N.J. Menendez is on trial for bribery and fraud charges, but he and his staff are sticking to his schedule of official events: a letter to the president over Americans held in Iran, a tweet storm on Equifax and a rally to support so-called Dreamers. (AP Photo/Julio Cortez)

NEWARK, N.J. (AP) — U.S. Sen. Bob Menendez has spent about 30 hours over the last two weeks in a New Jersey courtroom fighting for his political career and freedom, while showing little sign outside the courtroom he’s in the middle of a federal corruption trial.

The New Jersey Democrat is defending himself against charges he lobbied government officials on behalf of a Florida eye doctor in exchange for campaign contributions and luxury vacations, and the trial is keeping him away from votes in Washington but not from Senate work entirely.

After prosecutors slammed him on the first day of the trial, Menendez attended a rally of about 100 people outside a federal building to protest President Donald Trump’s decision to end deportation protection for young immigrants living in the country illegally.

During a day of testimony from two women Menendez is accused of helping get visas as part of a bribery conspiracy, his Twitter account blasted out messages saying he was “outraged” at Equifax, the credit-rating agency that was hacked, exposing the Social Security numbers and other personal data of about 143 million Americans. Menendez said he will work to preserve the right to sue for those affected by the breach.

The flurry of tweets, news releases and public events comes as Menendez is fighting for his political future. Republicans are already trying to pressure Senate Democrats to call for Menendez’s resignation if he’s convicted, which would allow Republican New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie to choose his replacement to fill out his term.

Menendez has pleaded not guilty.

His advisers say his work is an effort to persevere through an “unjust time in his life.”

“He has chosen to continue his fight for New Jersey while at the same time fighting to clear his good name, when most people under these conditions would’ve simply collapsed,” senior political adviser Mike Soliman said.

The spirited defense during the trial follows the script Menendez’s team has used since he was indicted in 2015. Menendez vigorously denied wrongdoing that day and vowed to defend himself.

He has raised more than $6 million between a legal defense fund and for his 2018 re-election campaign since then. Hundreds of donors, including Las Vegas casino magnate Sheldon Adelson and his wife, Miriam, continue to support him.

Experts interpret Menendez’s work schedule as optimism about his chances of acquittal. It’s also an effort to avoid showing any weakness, said Montclair State University political science professor Brigid Harrison.

“On some level, it’s almost in-your-face,” she said. “If you are going to start indicting senators for accepting campaign contributions from individuals and corporations and then advocating for them, there’d be nobody left.”

The trial and allegations against Menendez don’t seem to have eroded any support from his Democratic allies.

“New Jersey needs people in Congress who fight as fiercely on our behalf as Robert Menendez has his entire career,” fellow Democrat and New Jersey Sen. Cory Booker said in a statement. “I’m grateful for his friendship and I look forward to continuing to work with him.”

Republicans see it differently.

The Republican National Committee has launched a campaign to pressure Democrats to call for Menendez’s resignation, and has even put together an election-style video that features then-Sen. Barack Obama calling for the ouster of a Republican lawmaker who was convicted.

The committee has also unveiled what they’re calling a second phase of the campaign, calling on Democrats who’ve accepted campaign cash from Menendez’s political action committee to return the money.

Menendez’s standing in New Jersey, though, could be taking a hit from the trial. A Quinnipiac University poll released last week showed that 50 percent think he doesn’t deserve re-election. The poll surveyed 1,121 registered voters and had a margin of error of plus or minus 4 percentage points.

That was up from a Quinnipiac survey in June when 44 percent thought he didn’t deserve re-election. The poll surveyed 1,103 voters with a margin of error of plus or minus 3.8 percentage points.

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Contact Catalini at https://www.twitter.com/mikecataliini

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