DAMAGE CONTROL JANUARY 9, 2014
Chris Christie today did his best to put to rest the scandal over the three-day closure of George Washington Bridge access lanes to punish a Democratic mayor who declined to endorse him by a) firing a top aide and barring from his inner circle his longtime chief political adviser and b) giving a press conference so long and personal that it included mentions of his morning workout routine and shower. (TMI, as even the “children of Barbara Buono voters” might say.) His performance was predictably effective, on the whole—this is, after all, part of Christie’s basic appeal, the lay-it-all-out straight-talking garrulousness.
But was he talking straight? And will the marathon talkathon do anything to put this behind him? Highly unlikely. Here are some of the many questions that were left outstanding and shoes left to drop:
1. If Christie only found out this week that the lane closures had been a political hit job, why did he last month accept the resignation of his two top men at the Port Authority? The two are New Jersey’s top staff appointee there, former state senator and Christie ally Bill Baroni, and former political blogger David Wildstein, who attended Christie’s high school a year behind him and was installed by Christie at the Port Authority in a newly-created and ill-defined $150,000 liaison job. Baroni was the first to testify before a legislative committee that the lane closures were part of an innocent traffic study, while Wildstein has remained silent and today pleaded the Fifth Amendment before the legislative committee. We now know exactly what they were up to. Christie has claimed that Baroni’s December departure was in the works before all this came up. Seriously? And what about Wildstein? Why was he out in December if the governor didn’t know what was up before this week?
2. If Christie really didn’t know about any of this, who else in his inner circle did? Already implicated by the e-mails released this week are Bridget Kelly, his deputy chief of staff, and Bill Stepian, his longtime campaign manager. But there were many names and numbers redacted from those e-mails. What about Kevin O’Dowd, Christie’s chief of staff and Kelly’s boss? Well, legislators will have a chance to ask him about this: He is Christie’s nominee to be attorney general, and has a confirmation hearing scheduled later this month. And if O’Dowd is confirmed, despite having presided, unknowingly or not, over Kelly’s Fort Lee operation, what are we to expect of any state investigation of the whole debacle? The same goes for any investigation launched by U.S. Attorney Paul Fishman, Christie’s successor—the ties between that office and Christie are not surprisingly very deep, starting with the fact that Christie’s deputy U.S. Attorney, Bill Fitzpatrick, is now Fishman’s first assistant.
3. Will the scorned aides seek payback? Christie is generally known for his loyalty to his closest aides and confidantes, and the favor is mutual. That is why no one had any doubts that Baroni, say, would end up in a nice spot after stepping down from his $290,000 gig at the Port Authority. But so dire is Christie’s current spot that he went a bit heavy on the condemnations of his implicated team members, repeatedly lacing Kelly for “lying” to him and, remarkably, disputing the notion that he and Wildstein were high school pals by all but declaring Wildstein a teenaged loser—whereas Christie, he reminded reporters, was “class president,” Wildstein “didn’t travel in the same circles.” Would you like to add anything, David?
4. What about all the Democratic mayors that did endorse Christie? It was striking how much Christie took pains in the press conference to try to preserve the notion that he has governed in a bipartisan fashion of the sort that Washington sorely needs. This is, as he made clear in his reelection-night speech and later victory-lap addresses, the main theme of his anticipated 2016 presidential campaign. But there have long been questions raised in New Jersey about just how Christie managed to get those 50-odd Democratic elected officials to endorse him. And at moments today, Christie rejected the notion that he ordered a “vendetta” to punish the mayor of Fort Lee because he had never even asked for his support in the first place. Leaving hanging the obvious question: Well, does that mean if he had asked him and been rebuffed, a vendetta might be in order?
Settle in for a long ride, folks. We’re only at Exit 8, Freehold, and it's brake lights as far as the eye can see.