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Analysis: Will Governor Christie's House of Cards Collapse?

And if it were illegal, Christie has no one else to blame for his administration’s hard push to get around the Port Authority’s initial determination that the use of toll money to pay for the Pulaski Skyway reconstruction would violate bond covenants. If indictments are issued, Christie will have a hard time explaining to potential donors or to voters in Iowa and New Hampshire that it was just an administrative mixup that shouldn’t disqualify him from the presidency.

The Times story was the second in three days to go viral with the suggestion that federal enforcement authorities were targeting Christie. The first, an Esquire article coauthored by Lisa Brennan, who used to cover Christie’s U.S. Attorney’s Office and has good sources in the law enforcement community, ran Saturday.

While Christie repeatedly assures big-money Republican donors that he will not be personally implicated in Bridgegate by U.S. Attorney for New Jersey Paul Fishman’s grand jury investigations, headlines like Esquire’s “Exclusive: Prosecutor Is Closing In On Gov. Christie” and The New York Times’ “2nd Bridge Inquiry Said To Be Linked to Christie” create tremors among even the governor’s staunchest deep-pocket supporters.

Setting a Low Bar

Christie has set a low bar for his culpability in Bridgegate, insisting that he had no prior or contemporaneous knowledge of the four-day closures of entry lanes to the George Washington Bridge that snarled traffic in Fort Lee in apparent retaliation against Democratic Mayor Mark Sokolich for refusing to endorse Christie for reelection. However, it was Christie campaign manager Bill Stepien, who was perceived to speak for Christie on political matters, who set up the operation in the governors office that targeted Democratic mayors, African-American and Hispanic leaders, union presidents and others for reelection endorsements that would fit into Christie’s presidential campaign narrative as the candidate who could win in November 2016 by expanding the Republican electorate.

It was Stepien’s protégé, Bridget Kelly, the deputy chief of staff who was part of Christie’s inner circle and traveled frequently with him to events, who sent out the fateful “time for some traffic problems in Fort Lee” email . Baroni and David Wildstein, Christie’s political eyes and ears at the Port Authority who directly ordered the lane closures, carried out a clandestine operation on Christie’s behalf two years earlier to disguise the governor’s role in a controversial Port Authority toll hike that is still under investigation by the Wisniewski committee and is the subject of an ongoing civil lawsuit.

Wildstein, who is trying to negotiate an immunity deal with the U.S. Attorney, has said he told Christie of the lane closures at a World Trade Center memorial ceremony on September 11. Christie said he doesn’t remember the conversation.

And it is David Samson, Christie’s trusted 2009 campaign counsel whom he named as Port Authority chairman, who is at the heart of a slew of conflict-of-interest investigations alleging that he used his position to advance the interests of his law firm. Fishman’s office is investigating Hoboken Mayor Dawn Zimmer’s allegation that Lt. Gov. Kim Guadagno threatened on behalf of Christie to withhold Sandy aid from her city unless she supported a controversial Rockefeller Brothers high-rise development represented by Samson’s firm.

Governor Victim?

Whether the indictments of Samson, Baroni, Wildstein, and Kelly would cripple Christie’s presidential bid depends on if the governor can convince potential donors and GOP voters that he was a victim whose trusted aides lied to him and that he acted quickly to get to the bottom of the Bridgegate scandal by hiring an outside law firm to conduct an investigation in January after the incriminating Kelly e-mail surfaced on January 8.

What Christie cannot survive, however, is a finding that he knowingly participated in a coverup of the Bridgegate scandal for political advantage, first to get through his November reelection and then in an effort to get through the swearing in of a new Legislature on January 14. On that date, Wisniewski’s Assembly Transportation Committee’s subpoena powers would expire, and it was believed that Christie had a tacit understanding with incoming Democratic leaders that those subpoena powers would not be renewed, allowing the Bridgegate scandal to quietly die.

Instead, Bridgegate exploded into a national news story, and both the internal inquiry conducted for Christie by Randy Mastro and his Gibbon Dunn & Crutcher law firm and the testimony of Christie administration officials under oath before the Legislature’s Select Committee on Investigation have made it clear that Christie knew or suspected more than he admitted in November and December press conferences.

Christie’s chief counsel at the time, Charlie McKenna, who had responsibility for Port Authority issues in the governor’s office, has already testified before Fishman’s investigators, and is considered the key to determining what Christie knew and when he knew it. McKenna is on the Select Committee on Investigation’s list of top target witnesses when the panel resumes its hearings this summer, Wisniewksi and Senate Majority Leader Loretta Weinberg (D-Bergen), the committee’s cochair, both said.

The Comeback That Wasn't

Even if Christie’s presidential hopes emerge battered, but breathing, from what are expected to be at least a year of investigations and hearings, the economic and fiscal turnaround that Christie trumpeted as the “New Jersey Comeback” in January 2012 when he was at the top of the list for selection as the GOP vice-presidential nominee, has evaporated -- and with it, much of the record Christie planned to run on.

Once again, Christie’s political ambitions collided with prudent public policy in a way that ultimately undermined his presidential hopes.

Christie’s first two budgets were a model of fiscal conservatism in their revenue projections, but in January 2012 Christie began a three-year cycle of overestimated revenues leading to mid-year budget shortfalls filled by raids on dedicated funds and other “one-shot” fiscal gimmicks that contributed to the decision of all three bond agencies to cut New Jersey’s credit rating to a single-A tier only shared by Illinois and California.

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