After swiftly dismissing a top official in his administration, Chris Christie was characteristically caustic when pressed by the press for the lesson to be drawn from the scandal: “Don’t lie to the governor.”
But that was then — three years ago. This week, the raging bull turned sad puppy for two hours of bravura contrition after cashiering yet another top aide who, he says, lied to him. It is a different time, and this is a very different scandal. Yet, I can’t help suspecting it’s the same old Christie.
New Jersey had failed to qualify for federal “Race to the Top” education funds, falling a measly three points short of the 500-point threshold prescribed by an abstruse Washington formula. The amount of money involved was enormous, $400 million. But in a country where trillion is the new billion, that’s a few digits shy of grabbing the public’s attention. Plus, Christie — just hitting his stride, his eccentric brand of tough-guy bipartisanship not yet stale — was not then a national figure. So the fact that the Garden State lost out because its application omitted two years of budget data (a five-point penalty!) was big news in Trenton, but nowhere else.
This past September’s bumper-to-bumper snarls are quite another matter. They hit New Jerseyans where we live much of the time: on our derrieres, behind the wheel hours on end, crawling tortoise-like from place to place — especially when one of those places is the Big Apple. So the ongoing scandal is about traffic . . . but, of course, it’s juicier than that. It’s about hellacious traffic jams that were willfully manufactured — much as that may sound like a coals-to-Newcastle errand. It’s about Christie’s administration maliciously slamming already beleaguered commuters — and, worse, subjecting police, fire departments, emergency medical teams, school buses, and small-business merchants to withering gridlock — as payback against at least one recalcitrant Democratic mayor.
In public, the notorious Christie wrath is usually reserved for tea-party conservatives, for those who don’t share his soft spot for Islamic supremacists, and for the stray insolent teachers’-union rep — because, well, who doesn’t enjoy watching that? Playing nicely with Democrats is a big part of the governor’s shtick. So why was Mr. Bipartisan — or, at least, his closest aides — harassing Democrats behind the scenes? After all, he was already cruising to a reelection romp — ultimately crushing his hapless opponent by 22 points.
Team Christie was in harassment mode because the governor is already running for president and sees his Mr. Bipartisan brand as the ticket to the White House: the lone earnest pol who can bridge the poisonous partisan divide. His hug-fest with Barack Obama as the 2012 election headed toward the wire was a good start, but it would be nicely complemented by a blowout win in a blue-blue state and a bandwagon teeming with as many Christie-crats as possible — “Christie-crat” being an epithet the Left affixes to Dems who work closely with the governor, a rough Jersey analogue of “RINO.”
So Team Christie — with, we are to believe, little or no direction from the guy who stood to benefit — turned up the heat on Democrats, pressuring them to endorse Christie’s reelection. Apparently, any Democrats would do, even if the governor could not pick them out of a line-up, as was evidently the case with Mark Sokolich, the Fort Lee mayor targeted in Bridgegate for refusing Team Christie’s entreaties. Another Democratic mayor, Jersey City’s Steven Fulop, claims that the day he announced he would not support Christie, a string of state commissioners, one by one, called to cancel meetings to address the city’s problems — and that he’s had great difficulty getting Trenton’s attention ever since.
The damning e-mails made public this week show that Christie aides and appointees held Sokolich and Fulop in contempt. Nevertheless, to focus on personal vendettas — as Christie did for the purposes of stressing that he did not have them and of thus distancing himself from his staff’s shenanigans — is to miss the point. The Christie objective was not to punish reluctant Democrats. That was a corollary. The aim was to stockpile supportive Democrats. For presidential-campaign purposes, it was the accumulation that mattered to the big guy, not the specific personalities.
Why does that matter? Because we’re trying to figure out what actually happened here. Do I believe Chris Christie instructed his people to retaliate against Sokolich, Fulop, and perhaps other specific Democrats? Highly unlikely. Do I believe Christie directed his trusted aides — officials who’d been with him a long time and had a good idea of the limits of their authority — to line up as many supportive Democrats as possible and not bother him with a lot of details about how they went about it? Well now . . .
Christie’s mea culpa on Thursday was in many ways impressive, even if it does seem, in restropect, to have been more about the sins of others. He took responsibility but not blame, repeatedly protesting his personal innocence. He swiftly terminated two top aides shown by the e-mails to have plotted, or at least been aware of, the massive traffic jams, but he was dodgy about what, if any, further investigative steps he — as opposed to the legislature or the prosecutors — might take.
Christie’s admirers are actually framing the exhibition of remorse as a triumph that somehow erases the debacle that prompted the exhibition. Still seeing him as their preferred 2016 candidate, they are quick to compare him favorably with the Obama administration, in which responsibility is rarely acknowledged and heads never roll. But that’s a very low bar. If we were not talking about government, if such corruption had occurred at a private corporation, prosecutors would have expected the company to have launched a searching internal investigation at the first scent of wrongdoing. They would have demanded full disclosure to, and energetic cooperation with, the government.
Compare this with Christie. For weeks, he scoffed at the bridge scandal as crass “politics,” despite news reports that consistently portrayed the jams as political retaliation. Then, in early December, two political allies he’d appointed to the Port Authority — David Wildstein and Bill Baroni, who turn out to have directed the punitive lane closures — resigned under the heat of scrutiny. Christie still insisted there was nothing to see, claiming at a news conference that Baroni’s departure “was nothing I hadn’t planned already” — totally unconnected to the manufactured traffic jams.
Baroni had claimed publicly that the lane closures were part of a “traffic study.” That explanation should have been suspicious to a smart, hands-on manager like Christie: Traffic patterns at the George Washington Bridge are regularly monitored; they can easily be studied via computer models without disrupting commuters. But at Thursday’s press conference, Christie stressed the claim that there was a real traffic study — made by a guy who resigned under a cloud — as his rationale for dismissing the scandal as nothing but his detractors trying to stir up trouble.
That is tough to square with his radio appearance on December 23. Christie told listeners he’d gotten a “full briefing” about the bridge scandal from his staff, that “they’ve told me everything we know,” and that the scandal was “all about politics.” Despite this “full briefing,” he told a radio host that he had not seen, and had no interest in seeing, the supposed traffic study. “What do I care?” scoffed the governor of one of the nation’s most traffic-congested states.
By Thursday’s press conference, the traffic study he said he didn’t care about was back to being his considered rationale for taking no meaningful action as scandal continued to swirl. He also spoke not of getting a “full briefing” but, for the first time, of having read his staffers the riot act a few weeks back. He warned them, he said, that if any of them had any involvement in the scandal, they’d better ’fess up to his chief of staff or counsel — interestingly, he didn’t suggest that they ’fess up to him.
Why, if they’d already satisfied him with a “full briefing,” did Christie feel the sudden need to give his most trusted aides such an ultimatum? Why, if he had become disturbed enough to conclude an ultimatum was in order, did he not direct a full-blown internal investigation into his office’s connection to the traffic nightmare? When both of the friends he’d appointed to the Port Authority suddenly resigned, did he make sure they’d been debriefed about their connection to the traffic scandal? About any participation by members of his staff in their activities?
Christie appears to have taken none of these elementary steps. Contrary to his carefully cultivated reputation as a hard-charging, no-nonsense prosecutor — the scourge of political corruption — the governor seems downright passive when it comes to his own circle. He takes no investigative initiative. He reacts as embarrassing developments occur and tweaks his story accordingly. He is caught flatfooted and unprepared when damning disclosures, like this week’s e-mails involving his close aides, inevitably emerge.
When he finally takes action, moreover, it turns out to be the only conceivable action any ambitious politician would take under the circumstances. His fans are applauding his decisiveness, but what ambitious politician who had any hope of running for president would not have fired Bridget Kelly once those e-mails hit the news? The Obama comparison doesn’t cut it: Obama is already president and, with the press carrying his water, he doesn’t have to fire anyone — not Sebelius, not Holder, not Rice, no one. Christie doesn’t have that luxury.
Ms. Kelly was ousted because, according to Christie, she lied to him — meaning, we must assume, she did not confess her role in orchestrating the traffic snarls when he gave his ultimatum. Which brings us back to where we started — to Bret Schundler.
In 2010, when New Jersey lost out on the Race to the Top funding by failing to provide budget data, the governor, in Christie style, thundered that the data had been supplied to Washington. He inveighed at the bureaucracy’s “mindless drones” for missing it. But they hadn’t missed it. Schundler had failed to supply it, as was proved by a quickly released videotape of the state’s presentation.
Looking foolish, Christie immediately turned on Schundler, publicly claiming he’d misled Christie into believing the data had been supplied, inducing the governor’s ill-informed tirade. Except Schundler hadn’t lied. He admitted screwing up on the missing data, but he had been up front about it with Christie’s office.
Offended at being branded a liar, Schundler produced e-mails proving he had given Christie’s staff advance warning. He also recalled speaking personally to Christie before the governor went out to blast the Washington bureaucrats at his press conference. Schundler recalled:
The Governor said he was angry about the missing information in our grant application, but that no one was going to lose their job over it. He said he was about to do a press conference about the matter, and that he believed it is always better to be on offense than defense, so he would accept responsibility for the error, and then go on offense against the Obama Administration. He was going to try to make the story about their picayune rules. He was going to say that I gave the reviewers the missing information, but the Obama Administration refused to give us the points we deserved, and that this showed they put bureaucratic rules above meaningful education reform.
Has a familiar ring, no? In any event, Christie sloughed off Schundler’s account as “revisionist history,” no one outside New Jersey much cared, and the story quickly faded away.
Like Garden State traffic, “Bridgegate” is not going to fade away any time soon. And if, as a cynic might suspect, there is more to the story than we heard on Thursday, something tells me we’re going to hear about it.