A Senate staffer testified at the bribery trial of Sen. Bob Menendez, revealing that planning for the senator's 2021 trip to Egypt and Qatar took a "weird" turn after Menendez insisted on including Egypt in the itinerary. Sarah Arkin, a senior staffer with the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, provided detailed testimony as a government witness, shedding light on Menendez's alleged involvement in a bribery scheme.

Arkin testified that Menendez directed his staff to reach out to an unfamiliar individual at the Egyptian embassy for assistance in planning the week-long trip. Typically, such trips are organized through the State Department and U.S. authorities, making Menendez's directive unusual. "It was weird," Arkin remarked during her testimony, emphasizing that this method of trip planning was atypical for a U.S. senator.

The trial centers on allegations that Menendez received hundreds of thousands of dollars in gold and cash in exchange for using his influence to benefit three New Jersey businessmen from 2018 to 2022. Among the favors Menendez allegedly provided was pressuring a Department of Agriculture official to protect a lucrative halal certification monopoly awarded by the Egyptian government to one of the businessmen.

Menendez, along with two businessmen accused of paying bribes, has pleaded not guilty to charges of bribery, fraud, extortion, and obstruction of justice. Additionally, Menendez faces charges of acting as a foreign agent of Egypt. A third businessman involved in the case testified earlier in the trial, which has now entered its seventh week.

During her testimony, Arkin described an incident where Menendez was reportedly "very upset" after learning that two Egyptian officials, including Egypt's ambassador, had complained that she had informed them that Menendez would not meet with Egypt's president during the trip "under any circumstances." Arkin vehemently denied making such a statement, calling the claim "absolutely not true."

Arkin's testimony also highlighted the involvement of Menendez's wife, Nadine Menendez, in the trip's planning. According to Arkin, Nadine Menendez was "trying to be involved in the planning" and had "lots of opinions" about the trip's itinerary. Nadine Menendez, who has also pleaded not guilty in the case, had her trial postponed due to breast cancer surgery.

Menendez, who was the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee when charged last fall, has since stepped down from that position. He maintained outside the courthouse that Arkin could have joined the trip if she had wanted to but chose not to go.

In another instance of unusual behavior, Arkin recounted a 2018 meeting where Menendez personally drafted an invitation for the Egyptian defense attaché and Wael "Will" Hana, an Egyptian American businessman from New Jersey, to visit his office. This handwritten invitation was described by Arkin as an "unusual move." During this meeting, Menendez's then-girlfriend, Nadine, also attended. Prosecutors allege that Hana, a longtime friend of Nadine Menendez, received a monopoly from Egypt on certifying beef exports and used proceeds from this arrangement to bribe Menendez and Nadine.

Arkin also testified that Menendez had told her in 2019 that he wanted to be less publicly critical of Egypt and handle matters through private conversations. This shift was prompted by a letter she had drafted for Menendez to urge Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi to respect human rights and honor his pledge to leave office after a second term.

Further complicating the situation, Arkin revealed that she was unaware of certain interactions between Menendez and Egyptian officials. For example, Egypt's head of intelligence, Abbas Kamel, sent Menendez a letter starting with "Dear Bob," an unusually informal salutation for a senator.

The trial has seen contentious moments over the scope of Arkin's testimony, with disputes between Menendez's defense and prosecutors over the limits of the constitutional "speech or debate" clause. Menendez's attorney, Avi Weitzman, has begun cross-examining Arkin, aiming to portray Menendez's actions as strategic rather than improper. The defense maintains that Menendez's meetings with foreign officials were part of his duties as chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.