Anatomy of a Scandal: Why 'Bridgegate' Matters
Christie-watchers say governor’s downfall is inevitable result of hardball politics, outsized ambition
To longtime Christie-watchers, the Bridgegate scandal is the inevitable outgrowth of a governorship built on an outsized cult of personality, unprecedented hardball politics of character assassination and intimidation, and four years of putting the governor’s personal political ambitions ahead of the state’s policy needs and the interests of his own Republican Party.
For Gov. Chris Christie, the biggest problem is not the round-the-clock attacks of Democrats like Assemblyman John Wisniewski and Senate Majority Leader Loretta Weinberg, but the harsh critiques of Republicans like former Gov. Thomas H. Kean, whose campaign Christie worked on during high school, and Rick Merkt, Christie’s former Assembly running mate and a township committeeman in Christie’s hometown of Mendham Township.
One week ago, Christie was the clear frontrunner for the Republican presidential nomination in 2016 and the most powerful governor in New Jersey history, more powerful even than the popular Kean, proving Machiavelli’s axiom that “it is better to be feared than to be loved.”
Today, not only are Christie’s presidential ambitions on life support, but Wisniewski and Sen. Raymond Lesniak (D-Union) are questioning whether subpoenaed Bridgegate documents released last week are the first evidence of a coverup that could constitute obstruction of justice and ultimately lead to Christie’s impeachment.
Four top Christie administration officials have resigned or been fired in the past month, and David Wildstein, the Christie appointee at the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey who directly oversaw the George Washington Bridge lane closures, took the Fifth Amendment more than 30 times in testimony before the Assembly Transportation Committee Thursday.
Christie’s stunning fall from grace has set off a national media feeding frenzy and a 24-hour news cycle scrutiny of Christie’s personality and governance that would not have occurred until he declared for the presidency. Even worse for Christie, the Bridgegate scandal has freed up his critics by undercutting his power to retaliate against his foes without confirming his stereotype as a bully.
That is why Fort Lee Mayor Mark Sokolich, the “little Serbian” who was the alleged target of the George Washington Bridge lane closures that led to the resignations or firings of four top Christie aides, finally felt free to speak out publicly on Thursday after four months of refusing interviews.
More damning, however, were the national interviews in the Washington Post and New York, in which Kean openly questioned Christie’s fitness for the White House, asserting that he created a culture in his administration in which “no one will ever say no to him, and that is dangerous,” and Merkt said publicly what many Republicans say privately -- that Christie is “vindictive” and thin-skinned, and that “he does not believe in getting mad, he believes in getting even.”
Whether Christie and/or his top aides were “getting even” with Sokolich and whether they engaged in a subsequent coverup is already the subject of investigations being conducted with subpoena power by Wisniewski’s Assembly Transportation Committee, by United States Attorney Paul Fishman, and by the U.S. Science, Commerce and Transportation Committee chaired by U.S. Sen. John D. Rockefeller IV (D-WV)
Probing the Political Climate
Those probes, however, will inevitably widen to focus on the political culture created within Christie’s inner circle that led the governor's deputy chief of staff, Bridget Anne Kelly, and Bill Baroni, deputy executive director of the Port Authority, to close access lanes to the world’s busiest bridge as an act of personal political retaliation.
The investigation into the coverup will ask why officials like Michael Drewniak, Christie’s chief spokesman, Port Authority Chairman David Samson, and political consultant Bill Stepien were involved in deciding how to cover up the politics behind the George Washington Bridge lane closures.
The investigators will also want to know why Samson, Drewniak, Stepien, and other top Christie administration officials listed in the emails released last week -- including new Chief of Staff Regina Egea, former Chief Counsel Charles McKenna, and Communications Director Maria Comella -- did not sufficiently investigate Port Authority Executive Director Patrick Foye’s allegation months ago that the lane closures were politically motivated. Investigators also will want to know whether they discussed their concerns with Christie, and if not, why not.
“I don't think it's credible for a governor to have his chief of staff, his communication director, his deputy chief of staff, all involved, his chief counsel all involved in email communications on the day this took place and the days after talking not only about the problems that were created in Fort Lee, but also talking about how to spin it to the press,” Wisniewski said on CBS’s Face the Nation yesterday.
“Remember, this was in the midst of his re-election campaign,” he said. “Any governor running for re-election is going to want to know about problems that come up, if for no other reason, to know how to respond when asked a question. So these people got an e-mail from the executive director of the Port Authority saying that laws were broken. His chief counsel knew; his deputy chief of staff knew; his incoming chief of staff knew. It just strains credibility that they didn't look at those documents and say, "We ought to let him know about it."