Trump tells prankster posing as Sen. Bob Menendez, 'We're proud of you' and 'Great job'
President Donald Trump appeared to call the corruption charges that Sen. Bob Menendez faced unfair and congratulated the New Jersey Democrat for the way he faced them in a prank phone call recorded by a comedian, "Stuttering John" Melendez, who posed as the senator to get Trump on the line.
The White House did not respond to a request for comment Friday about the veracity of the call, which Trump apparently made Wednesday night from Air Force One as he returned from a rally in Fargo, North Dakota.
A tweet by Melendez promoting a podcast featuring the call was posted Thursday afternoon. Hours earlier, the senator's office said, White House aides had called asking if Menendez had been trying to reach the president. and if the office had an aide named Sean Moore. That was the name Melendez used when he posed as the senator's assistant and called White House operators.
The White House aides said "thank you" and hung up when told there was no aide with that name, according to Menendez's office.
Melendez says in the podcast that at one point Wednesday, he spoke with Jared Kushner, the president's son-in-law and adviser, who wanted to know what Menendez wanted to discuss with the president.
"I go, well, we had a long talk about immigration in the past," Melendez told listeners. "I think I can get on board with him if he does one favor, I can get closure on this. He goes, 'OK, cool, I’ll tell him.'"
Melendez said he then got a call from the president.
"Hi Bob, how are you?" Trump said at the start of the conversation as posted on the podcast. "How are you? Congratulations on everything, we're proud of you. Congratulations, great job. You went through a tough, tough situation and I don’t think a very fair situation, but congratulations."
Trump did not say what the situation was, but Menendez spent most of last fall in a federal courtroom in Newark as a defendant accused of bribery and honest services fraud, among other charges.
After a jury in November could not reach a verdict – one juror said they were leaning 10-2 toward acquittal – the judge earlier this year issued a bench acquittal for the most serious bribery charges. The Justice Department then dropped the remainder of the case.
Menendez was subsequently "severely admonished" by the Senate Ethics Committee, which said he violated the law, apparently for not disclosing some of the gifts. Menendez's Republican opponent in this year's election, Bob Hugin, has run television commercials repeatedly attacking Menendez over the incident, and his campaign was not impressed by Trump siding with the Democrat.
"New Jersey is not proud of Senator Menendez - we’re embarrassed by him," Hugin said in a statement.
While posing as the senator, Melendez praised Trump's effort to try and reunite families caught crossing the border, but said he was not sure what he should be telling constituents. Trump tried to convince him they should work together.
"Bob, let me just tell you, I want to be able to take care of the situation, every bit as much as anybody else," Trump says. "I think we can do the whole thing. You know, I have a good relationship with the party, you have a good relationship with the party. And I think we can do a real immigration bill."
The ersatz Menendez also asked Trump if he would name a conservative or a moderate to the Supreme Court. Trump said he is looking at several great candidates and would have a pick in 12 to 14 days. He then tells him he is on Air Force one, and they should talk more when he is back in Washington.
Menendez's office said he has never had a one-on-one conversation with the president since inauguration day, and never tried to call him on Air Force One. Part of the bipartisan Gang of Eight senators who got an immigration reform bill through the Senate in 2013, Menendez did participate in a meeting with Trump several months ago on immigration and ended up supporting a bipartisan compromise that died after Trump came out against it.
“As someone who has spent my entire career trying to convince Republicans to join me in reforming our nation’s broken immigration system, I welcome any opportunity to have a real conversation with the president on how to uphold the American values that guided our family-based immigration policy for the past century," Menendez said in a statement released by his office.
"Tearing children apart from their mothers is not part of our proud history. Thus far, this White House has only sabotaged every good-faith effort to find bipartisan common ground on immigration,” he said.
In the podcast, Melendez is heard calling the White House switchboard with an English accent and posing as Menendez's assistant. When asked at one point why he has a California telephone number that does not match one the White House has for Menendez's office, he says they are on vacation – even though the Senate was in session at the time.
Melendez tells listeners at one point he had to ask an associate which state Menendez represented.
At one point, a caller who identifies himself as being from "White House signal" tells Melendez that Trump, who was in Fargo, N.D., is giving a speech and would have to call back. Melendez says on the podcast he doubts that would happen, since he assumes they would call Menendez's real office to check on the veracity of the call.