The Bridgegate scandal and its coverup reached dangerously high into Gov. Chris Christie’s inner sanctum yesterday, directly implicating the governor’s deputy chief of staff in ordering the now-infamous George Washington Bridge lane closures, and tying both the governor’s two-time campaign manager and new choice to head the state Republican Party and his longtime press secretary to the damage-control efforts that followed.
For Christie, the frontrunner for the Republican presidential nomination in 2016 following his landslide reelection in November, the question yesterday was not just whether his presidential ambitions would survive the national media feeding frenzy, but how much yesterday’s revelations and the investigations to follow will undercut his unparalleled exercise of power and the bully pulpit at the Statehouse for the past four years.
“When everybody’s asking the old Nixon question -- ‘What did he know and when did he know it?’ -- that’s not good for the governor, regardless of what comes out of it,” said Monmouth University political scientist Patrick Murray. “And this investigation will play out for some time, which is also not good for the governor.”
Christie, who built a national reputation on his YouTube confrontations with reporters and critics, cancelled what was supposed to be a triumphant public event with superstorm Sandy victims to avoid the media yesterday morning. After darkness fell, he issued a brief statement in which he declared that he was “misled” by a staffer and knew nothing of the latest revelations before yesterday.
Christie’s statement seemed designed to put the focus solely on Bridget Anne Kelly, the governor’s deputy chief of staff whoseto Christie Port Authority appointee David Wildstein -- “Time for some traffic problems in Fort Lee” -- turned up in reporters’ email boxes yesterday morning as the long-awaited “smoking gun” in the Bridge-gate scandal.
Yesterday’s damage control strategy echoed Christie’s efforts last month to limit responsibility for the lane closures to Wildstein, a high school friend he placed as his political point man in the Port Authority, and Bill Baroni, the former GOP state senator whom he appointed as the Port Authority’s deputy executive director. Both Baroni and Wildstein resigned last month. Wildstein’s lawyer will appear in Superior Court this morning to fight a subpoena to testify under oath before the Assembly Transportation Committee at noon.
The problem for Christie, however, is not only that he joked about the lane closures as the “inconsequential” moving of a few cones -- when it was revealed yesterday by The Record that the closures delayed paramedics from reaching an unconscious 91-year-old woman on September 10 who later died in the hospital -- but that yesterday’s emails did not stop at Kelly and Wildstein.
While Christie was sticking to the traffic study explanation and insisting as late as December 19 that no one in his office or campaign staff had any knowledge of the Bridge-gate matter, the emails showed that:
Michael Drewniak, Christie’s press secretary, reviewed -- along with Kelly -- the explanation Wildstein drafted for the Port Authority on September 12 explaining that the lane closures were for a phantom “traffic study” that has never materialized.
Wildstein promised that David Samson, the former New Jersey attorney-general whom Christie selected as Port Authority chairman, would be “helping us to retaliate” against “the New York side” after Port Authority Executive Director Patrick Foye, an appointee of New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo, ordered the lanes reopened on September 13 -- closures that Wildstein had ordered other agency appointees to hide from Foye.
Bill Stepien, Christie’s campaign manager and former deputy chief of staff whom he named state Republican chairman Tuesday, discussed the politics of Bridge-gate with Wildstein on September 18 and 19, with Stepien dismissing Fort Lee Mayor Mark Sokolich as an “idiot” for complaining about the closures and Wildstein promising “it will be a tough November for this little Serbian,” referring to the Croatian-American mayor.
Wildstein emailed Stepien on October 2 that he would discuss in person with Drewniak and Kelly how to handle “leaks from Foye and his messing with us 5 weeks before the election” after Foye was quoted in a story on the lane closings in the Wall Street Journal.Stepien, who is also working now as a consultant for the Republican Governors Association, the national party fund-raising vehicle that Christie is chairing this year, was described by a source yesterday as Kelly’s “political mentor.”
With incoming Assembly Speaker Vincent Prieto (D-Hudson) breaking weeks of silence yesterday by announcing he planned to extend the Assembly Transportation Committee’s subpoena powers, Wisniewski said he expected to subpoena Stepien, Drewniak, Samson, and Baroni, among others, as part of his Bridgegate investigation.
“It certainly begs credulity to think people in the front office were doing things the governor was not aware of,” Wisniewski said yesterday when asked if he believed that close aides like Stepien and Drewniak would not keep him informed of what they knew.
“The governor joked about this, he denied it, now the governor has got to come clean and say either that he had no control over his front office or he was not telling the truth,” Wisniewski said. Democratic Sens. Barbara Buono (D-Middlesex), who lost to Christie by a landslide in the November election, and Raymond Lesniak (D-Union) yesterday called for the United States Attorney’s Office to investigate the Bridge-gate scandal.
That would be ironic in that it was President George W. Bush’s appointment of Christie, whom he nicknamed “Big Boy,” as United States Attorney in 2001 that rejuvenated Christie’s career as a corruption-busting prosecutor, a platform he rode to the governorship in 2009.
The next few days will be critical for Christie’s hopes of surviving the negative fallout from Bridge-gate both as a leading GOP presidential contender and as an asset to the national Republican Party in his high-profile role as chairman of the Republican Governors Association this year.
Christie and his top aides undoubtedly spent much of yesterday crafting a media strategy to deal with what for him is an unprecedented crisis. The first step was the release of last night’s press statement, which was notable not only for its avowal that Christie was shocked by what he learned yesterday, but also for its failure to include Kelly’s resignation or even name her in the press release.
“What I've seen today for the first time is unacceptable,” Christie said in the statement. “I am outraged and deeply saddened to learn that not only was I misled by a member of my staff, but this completely inappropriate and unsanctioned conduct was made without my knowledge. One thing is clear: this type of behavior is unacceptable and I will not tolerate it because the people of New Jersey deserve better. This behavior is not representative of me or my administration in any way, and people will be held responsible for their actions.”
Christie’s most likely next step is either to hold a press conference today or tomorrow, or to seek a friendly TV or talk radio show to make his case directly to voters, bypassing a New Jersey media backed by national reporters that will come armed with tough questions. The longer he waits to make public case, however, the more the furor is likely to grow, and Christie’s annual State of the State speech is scheduled for Tuesday afternoon.
The attacks on the governor by columnists and editorial writers, liberal talking heads, and talk show hosts are to be expected. What was more ominous was the nasty tenor of yesterday’s evening drive-time callers on 101.5 News Radio, usually a bastion of Christie supporters.
“Anybody who thinks Chris Christie didn’t know all about this, I’ve got a bridge to sell you,” one caller said.
“I pray he didn’t know about this,” a woman Christie supporter said fervently. “I hope he’s not that stupid.”
“I don’t think this is an impeachable offense,” said a third, “but I hope his political career is over.”Bridge-gate is unlikely to end Christie’s presidential ambitions, Murray and Ben Dworkin, director of Rider University’s Rebovich Center for New Jersey Politics, agreed, but it does cause problems.
“What this bridge controversy story does is that it shifts the narrative,” Dworkin said. “Christie’s no longer just a bully, he’s now someone who abuses power.”
“We’re nowhere near writing a eulogy for the Christie presidential campaign,” Murray said, “But this will be something everybody talks about, and the question is how it is going to play with the Republican elite and party donors. One of the questions nagging them about Chris Christie is the complaint of the Romney campaign that he may not have been forthcoming with them about what else is out there.
“If it hadn’t been somebody in the administration who was linked to the scandal -- if it was just somebody in his campaign or family or a friend -- it might have been possible for him to argue that they should not extend the Wisniewski committee’s subpoena powers. But he can’t lean on (Senate President Stephen) Sweeney or Prieto to stop this investigation now.”
Sweeney and South Jersey Democratic powerbroker George Norcross, who teamed up with Christie to pass the pension and tenure overhauls that gave him a national reputation as a bipartisan problem-solver, publicly defended Christie’s personal integrity in December, but Sweeney acknowledged yesterday he was troubled by the latest disclosures. In any case, Prieto said yesterday he expected to extend Wisniewski’s subpoena powers after the current legislative session ends Tuesday.
Wisniewski made it clear yesterday his probe is just getting underway. He and Senate Majority Leader Loretta Weinberg (D-Bergen), whose district includes Fort Lee and who was the first legislator to question the lane closures, spent much of yesterday afternoon’s press conference discussing a wide range of unanswered questions.
First, Kelly’s August 13 email to Wildstein, “Time for some traffic problems in Fort Lee,” to which Wildstein replied “Got it,” clearly indicates previous discussions occurred before that day, Wisniewski said.
The assemblyman noted that Christie and Samson, the Port Authority chairman, had been scheduled to meet several days before the email was sent. There is also the question of how Kelly knew that Sokolich, Fort Lee’s mayor, had refused to endorse Christie or angered Christie’s people in a way that would merit the political retaliation that followed, he said.
One obvious source is Christie’s campaign manager, Stepien, who reportedly identified the 40-year-old Kelly, a former aide to Assemblyman David Russo (R-Bergen), as a promising political operative in Bergen County and brought her into the governor’s office as director of legislative affairs. She replaced Stepien as deputy chief of staff for legislative and intergovernmental affairs when he left to run the 2013 Christie reelection campaign,
Second, who approached Sokolich about joining the more than 50 Democratic elected officials who would eventually endorse Christie? Wisniewski said he originally had intended to call both Sokolich and the Fort Lee police chief to testify before his committee today, but that the more than 3,000 pages of emails he obtained by subpoenas to Wildstein, Baroni, Foye, and other Port Authority officials pushed their testimony further down his list of priorities.
He said he would call Sokolich to testify in the future. Weinberg said Sokolich told her in numerous conversations that the reason he had not spoken up publicly about the lane closures was that he feared further political reprisals against his town in the future – an assertion that the now-famous Fort Lee mayor repeated in an interview on CNN Television yesterday, now that the disclosure of the emails have provided him and his town with a measure of immunity.Third, Wisniewski said the emails obtained by various news organizations yesterday show that there is no other possible explanation for the lane closures than political retaliation against Sokolich. He cited Wildstein’s email to Kelly assuring her that Baroni had not returned Sokolich’s phone call regarding an “urgent matter of public safety” in Fort Lee: “Radio silence,” Wildstein wrote. “His name comes right after Mayor Fulop,” referring to the newly elected Jersey City Democratic mayor who had also declined to endorse Christie.
A Sokolich text to Baroni the second day of the lane closures read: “Presently we have four very busy traffic lanes merging into one toll booth . . . The bigger problem is getting kids to school. Help.” An emailer to Wildstein whose name was redacted in the transcripts asked: “Is it wrong that I am smiling?” Wildstein replied “No.” “I feel sorry about the kids,” the emailer wrote. “They are the children of Buono voters,” Wildstein wrote back.
As reported last month, Baroni went to Foye to attempt to persuade the New York Democratic appointee not to make a big deal about the politics of the lane closures less than two months before Christie’s election -- an effort that largely succeeded. Despite reporting by The Record and The Wall Street Journal, in particular, it was not until after the election that Foye told Wisniewski’s committee under oath that while he believed laws might have been broken, but that he had no power to fire Wildstein because he was a Christie appointee.
Fourth, Wisniewski said, are the questions regarding Stepien, Drewniak, Samson, Communications Director Maria Comella, and other top Christie aides who appear in various email chains in the thousands of pages of documents turned over. What did they know about the origins of the lane closures from Kelly, Wildstein, and Baroni, and what did or didn’t they tell the governor?
Finally, Wisniewski emphasized that the emails and other documents obtained from Baroni and Wildstein, in particular, contained numerous redactions, and that often the redactions were different, leading him to believe that one or the other or both had failed to fully comply with his subpoena.
The biggest question, he said, is what other Christie administration officials, confidantes, or campaign aides are included in the email chains, and indeed, as one reporter suggested at the news conference, whether any emails were to or from Christie himself.
Wisniewski made it clear that he would issue a subpoena to Christie himself to testify, if the evidence warranted it.