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Menendez defends attending classified Ukraine briefing despite being accused of improperly assisting a foreign government

By Manu Raju and Morgan Rimmer, CNN

(CNN) — Democratic Sen. Bob Menendez, who has been indicted on federal corruption charges including allegations of improperly assisting the government of Egypt, attended a classified briefing on Ukraine Wednesday morning, raising concerns among some of his colleagues who believe that he should no longer be a senator or have security credentials.

The New Jersey Democrat grew defensive when approached by CNN on why he attended this briefing amid concerns about his continued service in the chamber and after he previously did not attend an Israel briefing, following a conversation he had with Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer.

He denied that Schumer barred him from the previous briefing, and insisted that he had a right to get the classified information as he pushed back on the accusations of aiding the government of Egypt.

“First of all, you’re wrong about that. He didn’t say ‘You can’t go’ and he didn’t not let me,” he said.

Asked why he attended this briefing, he told CNN’s Manu Raju, “because getting enough data on Ukraine is something that’s worthy as we consider the supplemental.”

He added: “You know, Manu, I know you’ve got to make news. Bottom line is, I’m a United States senator, I have my security credentials, and an accusation is just that. It’s not proof of anything.”

Menendez then entered an elevator and did not answer further questions about his slumping poll numbers in New Jersey.

Menendez pleaded not guilty in federal court late last month to a charge alleging he conspired to act as a foreign agent of Egypt. The Democratic senator, his wife Nadine Arslanian Menendez and three other co-defendants were indicted in September on corruption-related offenses and are accused of accepting “hundreds of thousands of dollars in bribes” in exchange for the senator’s influence. Menendez and the others pleaded not guilty to those charges.

Connecticut Democratic Sen. Chris Murphy, who also attended the briefing, said that the conference will have “an ongoing conversation” about Menendez’s access to classified material.

“I think we’ve taken the right step to have Sen. Menendez step down as chairman of the Committee. Obviously a lot of us think the right thing is for him to resign,” noted Murphy. “I think we’ll have an ongoing conversation about access to classified information. That’s an important thing for us to talk about.”

Asked if it made him nervous to have Menendez in Wednesday’s briefing, Murphy replied: “I think it’s something we are going to have to talk about as a caucus. This was not a briefing about Egypt or issues related to the Middle East.”

Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Ben Cardin dismissed concerns about Menendez’s participation in the briefing. Cardin said Menendez “has every right” to attend classified briefings as a member of the Senate and noted the subject of the briefing “had nothing to do with” the charges against him, which include allegations he improperly aided the government of Egypt.

When asked if he believes Menendez should remain a member of the Senate Foreign Relations committee, Cardin declined to answer. When asked if he feels Menendez should resign, Cardin again declined to answer.

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