The internal Bridgegate report released by a legal team hired by New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie’s office contains some new information, but not much. The report is more instructive as a study of crisis management — and an examination of how a possible presidential candidate reacted to a crisis.
Step 1. Stagecraft: The report was commissioned by the governor, paid for by taxpayers (to the tune of $1 million), and written by Christie allies. The report’s conclusion, but not the details of its findings, were first leaked to The New York Times in a front-page story Monday. By Thursday, Christie attorney Randy Mastro held a news conference at his law offices high above midtown Manhattan and insisted to a skeptical press corps that this was an independent, exhaustive report that sought all information, good or bad, about the governor. But the presence of one of the governor’s spokesmen and a member of his advance team indicated close coordination. The report was more than 300 pages long, but it was only provided to the media an hour before the news conference, and even then, thousands of pages of backup documents — including emails from the governor himself — were not released until the news conference began.
Mastro cut off reporters after about 90 minutes. He promised to do interviews later, but told WNYC that he was too busy. Meanwhile, Christie sat for a softball interview with Diane Sawyer to lead “ABC World News” at 6:30 p.m. Further clips from the interview would be slated to air on “Nightline,” and then on “Good Morning America.”
Step 2. Talk About Sex: An odd detail appeared in the fifth paragraph of the report’s executive summary. It said that after campaign manager Bill Stepien quit his position as deputy chief of staff in April 2013 in order to run Christie’s reelection campaign, he became “personally involved” with the woman who took his place in that office, Bridget Anne Kelly.
“Although, by early August 2013, their personal relationship had cooled, apparently at Stepien’s choice, and they largely stopped speaking,” the report says. Later, it returns to this factoid, surmising that Kelly’s decision to be involved with the lane closures may have something to do with being dumped by Stepien: “[E]vents in Kelly’s personal life may have had some bearing on her subjective motivations and state of mind.”
How these conclusions about their personal relationship were determined is not known, since neither Stepien nor Kelly spoke to investigators. But it served two purposes: It explained away Kelly’s involvement in the lane closures, attributing motivation to why she did what she did by attacking her emotional state of mind. And by noting that Kelly and Stepien “had largely stopped speaking” when she sent an August email that it was “time for some traffic problems in Fort Lee,” the report separates Stepien, Christie’s righthand political man, from the conspiracy. If Stepien wasn’t involved, the theory goes, then Christie wasn’t involved.
Still, Stepien’s attorney, Kevin Marino, was disgusted by what he described as a gratuitous and irrelevant effort at distraction on the part of Christie’s lawyers. “The headlines, what I’ve seen so far, everyone seems to be leading with this relationship and it’s so completely off the point,” Marino said.
Step 3. Attack: The report extensively attacks the allegations of Hoboken Mayor Dawn Zimmer, who in the wake of Bridgegate accused Christie of pushing a redevelopment deal in her town. In fact, despite the fact that the Bridgegate scandal is a much bigger deal for the public than the Zimmer allegations, fully half of the report’s executive summary is dedicated to breaking down Zimmer’s allegations.
Zimmer said that three Christie officials threatened to take away Sandy aid to her town if she didn’t approve the redevelopment project, and lobbyists close to Christie pressed for the project. Christie’s lawyers present extensive evidence to counter Zimmer’s claims and her credibility, even including still photographs from video taken at one of the public appearances where she said a shakedown occurred. The photographs “show Mayor Zimmer starting the conversation and doing most of the talking during it, yawning about midway through, and then smiling at the end — hardly the demeanor one would expect of someone who had just been threatened.”
Step 4. “Does Not Recall”: The lawyers take the most potentially damning new accusation and immediately refute it, then dismiss it. They say that David Wildstein, the governor’s appointee at the Port Authority, told Christie’s spokesman that he had told the governor about the lane closures while they were happening when the pair were together at Ground Zero on Sept. 11, 2013. But they nonetheless conclude that this statement is bogus because Christie said he didn’t “recall” this happening. The report also explains why the governor wouldn’t have recalled such a conversation: “[It] would not have registered with the governor in any event because he knew nothing about this decision in advance and would not have considered another traffic issue at one of the bridges or tunnels to be memorable.”
Step 5. Frame The Questions: Perhaps what was most evident in the report was what wasn’t there. For example, none of the top five biggest names in the Bridgegate scandal were interviewed. Among those are David Samson, Christie’s mentor who is currently serving the governor as chairman of the Port Authority, which operates the bridge. Samson is referred to in previously released documents as being the one who would “retaliate” against the official who finally reopened the lanes. So did he retaliate? Why was he chosen to retaliate? And why didn’t Christie make sure he would sit down for an interview with his lawyers? Samson’s absence in the report allowed Christie’s attorneys to frame the questions, and the fact that the 70 people interviewed weren’t under oath may have helped, too.
Step 6. Propose Reforms: Christie’s lawyers make some intriguing recommendations going forward, such as the appointment of a chief ethics officer in the governor’s office and the restructuring of the Port Authority. Yet the report portrays the issues here as isolated incidents, of Wildstein, who is described as having come up with the lane closure idea “like so many other ‘crazy’ ones he’d had before that.” And Kelly is portrayed as a jilted ex.
So why are such systemic changes necessary if nothing systemic went wrong on Christie’s watch? There is a disconnect here. But people expect reforms; they will make Christie look good. Tear a page from Crisis Management 101.[audio:http://www.podtrac.com/pts/redirect.mp3/audio.wnyc.org/news/news20140328_bridgegate_report_katz_ber.mp3]