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“Good News, Bad News For Christie”: The Governor And His Allies May Still Not Fully Appreciate The Broader Circumstances

Given all of our previous discussions about New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie’s (R) bridge scandal, it’s only fair to note, as Rachel did last night, new reporting that prosecutors have not yet tied the governor directly to the infamous misdeeds.

The U.S. Justice Department investigation into Gov. Chris Christie’s role in the George Washington Bridge lane closure scandal has thus far uncovered no evidence indicating that he either knew in advance or directed the closure of traffic lanes on the span, federal officials tell NBC 4 New York.

The September 2013 closures – where several entrance lanes to the George Washington Bridge in Fort Lee were shut down, causing a traffic nightmare for commuters – has been the subject of several federal and state investigations.

Federal officials caution that the investigation that began nine months ago is ongoing and that no final determination has been made, but say that authorities haven’t uncovered anything that indicates that Christie knew in advance or ordered the closure of traffic lanes.

We don’t yet know the source of this leak or its veracity, but it may very well be entirely true that prosecutors haven’t directly tied Christie personally to the bridge closings. Indeed, as of late yesterday, the governor seemed to be feeling pretty good about his standing, as if this WNBC report exonerated him.

But even if we assume the report is accurate, and we also assume that federal prosecutors never close in on Christie personally in the investigation into this scandal, the governor and his allies may still not fully appreciate the broader circumstances.

The Star Ledger’s editorial board, to its credit, hasn’t forgotten.

Before he finishes this victory lap, a few reminders: No one on the investigative committee has accused him of personally ordering these lane closures. It is hard to believe he would be that stupid.

But what about the cover-up? What about the bogus claim that this was all part of a traffic study? That came from Bill Baroni, Christie’s appointee as deputy executive director at the Port Authority, after he was coached for several days by senior members of Christie’s staff. Was Christie so out of touch that he was oblivious to all that? Hard to believe he was that stupid, either.

Part of the problem for Christie from the very beginning is that the governor’s best case scenario – the version of events that are the most favorable to him personally – is that Christie was such an inept and incompetent leader that has no idea that some of the top members of his team conspired to abuse their power in his name.

Under the usual conditions, this might sound like scathing criticism, but in Christie’s case, it’s his best defense. The governor and his supporters eagerly hope the WNBC report is accurate, so they can say Christie’s team deliberately crippled a New Jersey community on purpose, but the governor was too clueless to know what was going on around him.

And to this day, Christie still can’t explain the basics of how and why his handpicked team members abused the power he gave them.

For that matter, let’s also not forget that this isn’t the only Christie scandal that remains ongoing.

So I suppose what we’re left with is a good news/bad news situation for the governor. The good news, he may not personally be charged in the “Bridgeate” scandal. The bad news, the scandal isn’t over, the controversy itself still raises important questions about his competence, and there are other lingering scandals that may do lasting damage to his administration.

 

By: Steve Benen, The Maddow Blog, September 19, 2014

September 21, 2014 Posted by | Bridgegate, Chris Christie | , , , , , | Leave a comment

“Will The Press Let Chris Christie Clear Himself?”: The Beltway Press Has A long History Of Showering Christie With Adoring Coverage

The starting point for any allegation of executive office cover-up, like the one surrounding New Jersey Governor Chris Christie, is always the same: What did he know and when did he know it?

Eleven weeks after Christie held a marathon press conference to address questions about the bridge scandal that has enveloped his administration, we still don’t know the answer to the central question in the case: When did Christie find out that the city of Fort Lee had been brought to a four-day stand-still when at least one senior member of his staff teamed up with his appointee at the Port Authority to purposefully clog traffic lanes?

The release today of a self-investigation undertaken by Christie’s handpicked attorneys, and at a cost of at least $1 million to New Jersey taxpayers, does little to exonerate Christie on that question.

In fact, the report confirms that David Wildstein, the Christie appointee at the Port Authority who remains at the center of the scandal, insists he told the governor, in real time, about the lane closures on Sept. 11, 2013, and had detailed that meeting to one of Christie’s aides in December. Christie claims he doesn’t recall that conversation and from that he said/he said stand off, the internal probe generously declares Christie version is be believed and that he didn’t find out until weeks later about the Fort Lee fiasco.

Miraculously, in a scandal that brought weeks of relentlessly bad news for Christie in January and February, as revelation after revelation painted a picture of a deeply corrupt administration, his new paid-for investigation couldn’t find much bad news for the governor. The report, according to Christie’s attorney Randy Mastro was “a search for the truth.” It just so happens the reports is also “a vindication of Gov. Christie,” as Mastro stressed to reporters today.

Fact: Mastro served as a New York City deputy mayor under Mayor Rudy Giuliani, who has been perhaps Christie’s most public defender since the scandal broke in January.

Christie aides are hoping the new report, which reads more like a legal brief on the governor’s behalf and which failed to interview key players, represents a political turning point for Christie who has aspirations to run for president in 2016. But whether that strategy works depends a lot on how the national press treats the new report and the public relations push behind it. (Fact: The Beltway press has a long history of showering Christie with adoring coverage.)

For the first time since the scandal broke in January, Christie sits for a one-on-one interview with a national media figure, Diane Sawyer, which will air on ABC’s World News With Diane Sawyer tonight. The interview will be a good indication of how the Beltway press treats the new report and if it’s willing to allow Christie to clear himself of any wrongdoing before the U.S. Attorney’s office and New Jersey lawmakers in Trenton complete their own investigations.

A key to the ABC interview will be if Sawyer presses Christie on when he knew that roadways were being jammed, which remains the central point. Over time, Christie has given an array of answers to that very simple question.

From NJ.com:

But a review of the governor’s public statements on the controversy shows he has never said precisely when he first heard about the closures, giving slightly different explanations on three separate occasions and at one point describing his knowledge as “an evolving thing.”

What Christie does now when asked about his knowledge of the lane closings is to stress he wasn’t involved in the implementation of the plot.

This has probably been the most important strategic move Christie’s office has made since January: convince the press that the key question of the scandal is whether the governor planned the lane closures, not whether he knew about the wrongdoing in real time. Time and again this winter when asked, Christie has been very careful, and very emphatic, in insisting he was not involved in the plotting of the dirty tricks scheme; he had no advance knowledge.

From a February appearance on a radio call-in show:

“The most important issue is, did I know anything about the plan to close these lanes, did I authorize it, did I know about it, did I approve it, did I have any knowledge of it beforehand. And the answer is still the same: It’s unequivocally no.”

But again, that’s not really the question at hand. Think back to Richard Nixon. The pressing, constitutional question wasn’t whether Nixon himself had drawn up the harebrained scheme to break into Democratic Party offices inside the Watergate apartment complex in 1972. It was whether Nixon knew his underlings were running a criminal enterprise from inside the executive offices.

The same holds true for Christie today. And the fact that his paid legal counsel could not produce a report that erased doubts about the governor’s knowledge of the dirty tricks campaign poses a political problem.

Meanwhile, will the new initiative be enough the rekindle the love affair that had blossomed between the Beltway press and the N.J. governor? During that media romance, Christie was relentlessly and adoringly depicted as a Straight Shooter; an authentic and bipartisan Every Man, a master communicator who was willing to cut through the stagecraft and delivers hard truths.

Following Christie’s reelection last November, the admiration reached a new, sugary high. “Chris Christie is someone who is magical in the way politicians can be magical,” Time’s Mark Halperin announced on Meet The Press that week. Added Time colleague Michael Scherer in a cover story later that month, “He’s a workhorse with a temper and a tongue, the guy who loves his mother and gets it done.”

We’ll soon see if the press uses the new, one-sided report to return to its days of glowing Christie coverage.

 

By: Eric Boehlert, Media Matters For America, March 27, 2014

March 28, 2014 Posted by | Bridgegate, Chris Christie | , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

“More Than Traffic Problems”: Chris Christie Having Trouble Moving On From That Bridge Thing

New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie’s plan for getting past “Bridgegate” was to simply get past it. As soon as the emails showing that his aides and allies purposefully created traffic congestion as part of some sort of retribution plot were reported in the press, Christie fired aide Bridget Kelly and Port Authority executive David Wildstein. After taking a day to compose himself (or get his story straight), he held an epic press conference at which he spoke until he could plausibly argue that he had answered every single question reporters had for him. Since then he’s mainly appeared before (suspiciously) friendly town hall audiences. He seems to think he’s done enough to get past the worst of it. Yesterday, Christie told a reporter, “You folks are the only people at the moment who are asking me about this.”

Unfortunately, Kelly and Wildstein are also still talking. They are communicating with us from the distant past (a few months ago) thanks to Wildstein’s very helpful cooperation with New Jersey state legislators investigating the scandal. Wildstein — who has a reputation for being “capable of anything” — looks to be working to undermine his former ally with a steady stream of documents. The most recent batch include a return of the headline-friendly “traffic problems” line.

Kelly and Wildstein were texting last August about prominent New Jersey Rabbi Mendy Carlebach. Carlebach — not exactly a liberal, as he was a chaplain at the 2004 and 2008 Republican National Conventions — had somehow pissed Wildstein off, though it’s unclear how. (Carlebach claims to have no idea what he could’ve done.) And what do Christie’s allies do to people who piss them off? Exactly. Here are the messages, from the Bergen Record (via TPM):

In the texts about the chaplain, Wildstein sent Kelly a picture of Rabbi Mendy Carlebach, later writing: “And he has officially pissed me off.”

“Clearly,” Kelly responded on Aug. 19.

“We cannot cause traffic problems in front of his house, can we?” Kelly wrote.

“Flights to Tel Aviv all mysteriously delayed,” wrote Wildstein, an executive at the bi-state agency that controls the region’s airports.

“Perfect,” Kelly wrote.

These texts took place just a few days after the “time for the traffic problems in Fort Lee” email from Kelly to Wildstein, and a few weeks before the Fort Lee “traffic study” lane closures were carried out. This “traffic problems” suggestion looks to be a joke, and it doesn’t appear that any sort of retribution against Carlebach actually happened, but the fact that the intentional creation of traffic problems was already being treated as a joke between Wildstein and Kelly might indicate that the practice happened more often than just the one time in Fort Lee. (Or else it suggests that they were just so excited about their plan for Fort Lee that they couldn’t shut up about it.)

One thing Chris Christie probably does not want is for text messages like this to continue surfacing in the press weeks after the scandal blew up, while he is in the midst of attempting to convince voters and the press that he and his office have moved past the whole thing. But there is still the threat of more to come. Wildstein’s attorney sent the committee new copies of documents he already disclosed, but with fewer portions redacted, revealing the identities of some of the people he was communicating with. Much is still redacted, but Wildstein could always negotiate to release a bit more. The fact that the target of these messages was a Christie ally, not a small-time Democratic politician, makes them all the more damaging, since part of Christie’s survival strategy rests on having his party and his allies close ranks and declare the investigation a partisan witch-hunt. It’s enough to make a guy wish he hadn’t surrounded himself with incompetent sociopaths.

 

By: Alex Pareene, Salon, February 27, 2014

February 28, 2014 Posted by | Chris Christie | , , , , , | Leave a comment

“Christie’s Crisis Management”: The Governor Isn’t Navigating Those Perilous Waters Too Well

New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie (R) has found himself in the midst of several ongoing scandals, and from a distance, it’s not at all clear he’s receiving the best possible advice. Indeed, according to the governor’s own office, Christie aides have gone rogue more than once lately.

There are no doubt plenty of experts in political crisis management who could help steer the governor through these perilous waters, but I talked with a knowledgeable friend this afternoon about the kind of advice Christie needs but doesn’t seem to be receiving.

First, it’s not a good idea for the governor to travel to a tropical resort while New Jersey residents are struggling with another snow storm – causing, among other things, roofs to collapse.

Second, it’s not a good idea for the governor to cancel a town-hall meeting with constituents, citing inclement weather, only to keep his commitment to travel to nearby New York City for a Republican fundraiser for the same evening.

Third, it’s not a good idea for the governor’s office to identify a potentially damaging witness and then go after his high-school antics through the national media.

Fourth, it’s not a good idea for the governor to hire a high-priced lawyer, have the taxpayers pick up the tab, and then sit back as he shamelessly tries to intimidate witnesses.

Fifth, it’s not a good idea for the governor to change his story as the controversies unfold.

Sixth, it’s not a good idea for the governor to keep pretending there may have been a traffic study.

And finally, it might be a good idea for the governor to look busy.

Christie can start by considering some reforms at the Port Authority.

Major structural reforms would require legislative approval in Albany and Trenton, which would be hard but definitely worth a try. New Jersey, for instance, could help matters by enacting the equivalent of a reform law approved in New York that, among other things, required board members to pledge to uphold their fiduciary duties to their agency’s mission, not to their patron in the governor’s mansion. Short of that, the two governors should make changes that could make the authority less political and more professional.

The Port Authority’s 12-member board of commissioners is appointed by the governors, six by each. They should be appointed on the basis of their professional qualifications, not political connections, as so often happens, and held to six-year term limits. Some holdovers have been there for more than 10 years.

Each commissioner should also publicly disclose potential conflicts of interest well before the authority makes its decisions. These potential conflicts should be regularly displayed on the Port Authority’s website. Commissioners have routinely been allowed to lobby for contracts that could affect personal businesses and, only later after the decision is made, would they formally recuse themselves in the official minutes. Their recusal in each case should be announced at the public board meeting.

It’d be a start, wouldn’t it?

 

By: Steve Benen, The Maddow Blog, February 18, 2014

February 19, 2014 Posted by | Chris Christie | , , , , , | Leave a comment

“Someone Orchestrated That”: Why Did Port Authority Police Tell Angry Motorists To Blame The Democratic Mayor Of Fort Lee?

We’ve learned quite a bit about New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie’s (R) scandals over the last couple of months, including the fiasco surrounding the George Washington Bridge lane closures, but there are some core, foundational questions that haven’t been answered. Indeed, these are questions neither the governor’s team nor any of its allies have made even the slightest effort to address.

It remains unclear, for example, exactly who conspired to use the power of the Christie administration to deliberately cripple a New Jersey community last September. It’s equally unclear why members of Team Christie hatched and executed their plot.

And then there’s the cover-up of the administration’s admitted misdeeds. It’s this third angle that garnered some attention over the weekend, including an interesting piece from the Bergen Record’s Mike Kelly, who reported that state investigators are asking a simple question: why did Port Authority police tell angry motorists to blame the Democratic mayor of Fort Lee?

That question, which has lingered for months, may no longer be dismissed as just a footnote in the controversy now enveloping the Christie administration over whether the traffic snarl that overwhelmed Fort Lee’s streets for parts of five days was really political retribution.

A special state legislative committee examining the scandal now plans to investigate whether the call-the-mayor instructions were really a way of getting the message to Fort Lee Mayor Mark Sokolich, a Democrat, that the crippling traffic jams were punishment for his failure to endorse the reelection of Governor Christie, a Republican who had been touted as a possible future presidential candidate.

“It appears that someone issued instructions or talking points,” said Assemblyman John Wisniewski, the co-chairman of the special Assembly-Senate committee investigating the lane closure scandal. “Someone orchestrated that.”

Almost immediately after the Christie administration deliberately paralyzed Fort Lee, locals started demanding answers. For reasons that remain unclear, Kelly explained, Port Authority police officers at the scene told furious drivers they should call the mayor or borough officials.

The implication was hardly subtle: those looking for someone to blame should look at Sokolich. In reality, that didn’t make any sense, so why did the officers tell motorists something that wasn’t true? Or more to the point, who told the officers to convey false information?

This isn’t some tangent. To learn who was responsible is to better understand why Team Christie did this and who helped orchestrate the cover-up.

At this point, it’s still unclear why Port Authority police said what they said, but it’s clear state lawmakers looking into the scandal consider this important.

“It goes to the whole issue of abuse of power and efforts to conceal,” Wisniewski told Kelly. “It’s an important issue that we ultimately need to dive into.”

Meanwhile, MSNBC’s “Up with Steve Kornacki” moved the ball forward yesterday, too.

A Port Authority police officer with personal ties to New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie was at the George Washington Bridge when access lanes were closed last September and personally drove David Wildstein, the Christie appointee who supervised the closings, on a tour of the area as traffic brought it to a standstill.

Documents submitted to a New Jersey legislative committee by Wildstein also show that the officer,  Lieutenant Thomas “Chip” Michaels, appears to have sent periodic text messages to Wildstein updating him on the effects of the lane closures and their crippling impact on the town of Fort Lee. In one message, on the first day of the lane closures, Michaels told Wildstein he might have an idea to “make this better.” It is not clear what he meant.

By: Steve Benen, The Maddow Blog, February 17, 2014

February 18, 2014 Posted by | Chris Christie | , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

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