The starting point for any allegation of executive office cover-up, like the one surrounding New Jersey Governor Chris Christie, is always the same: What did he know and when did he know it?
Eleven weeks after Christie held a marathon press conference to address questions about the bridge scandal that has enveloped his administration, we still don't know the answer to the central question in the case: When did Christie find out that the city of Fort Lee had been brought to a four-day stand still when at least one senior member of his staff teamed up with his appointee at the Port Authority to purposefully clog traffic lanes?
The release today of a self-investigation undertaken by Christie's handpicked attorneys, and at a cost of at least $1 million to New Jersey taxpayers, does little to exonerate Christie on that question.
In fact, the report confirms that David Wildstein, the Christie appointee at the Port Authority who remains at the center of the scandal, insists he told the governor, in real time, about the lane closures on September 11, 2013, and had detailed that meeting to one of Christie's aides in December. Christie claims he doesn't recall that conversation and from that he said/he said stand off, the internal probe generously declares Christie version is be believed and that he didn't find out until weeks later about the Fort Lee fiasco.
Miraculously, in a scandal that brought weeks of relentlessly bad news for Christie in January and February, as revelation after revelation painted a picture of a deeply corrupt administration, his new paid-for investigation couldn't find much bad news for the governor. The report, according to Christie's attorney Randy Mastro was "a search for the truth." It just so happens the reports is also "a vindication of Gov. Christie," as Mastro stressed to reporters today.
Fact: Mastro served as a New York City deputy mayor under Mayor Rudy Giuliani, who has been perhaps Christie's most public defender since the scandal broke in January.
Christie aides are hoping the new report, which reads more like a legal brief on the governor's behalf and which failed to interview key players, represents a political turning point for Christie who has aspirations to run for president in 2016. But whether that strategy works depends a lot on how the national press treats the new report and the public relations push behind it. (Fact: The Beltway press has a long history of showering Christie with adoring coverage.)
For the first time since the scandal broke in January, Christie sits for a one-on-one interview with a national media figure, Diane Sawyer, which will air on ABC's World News With Diane Sawyer tonight. The interview will be a good indication of how the Beltway press treats the new report and if it's willing to allow Christie to clear himself of any wrongdoing before the U.S. Attorney's office and New Jersey lawmakers in Trenton complete their own investigations.
When the editorial board of The Star-Ledger of New Jersey gathered last October to consider an endorsement for governor, it was clear their support for Gov. Chris Christie was lukewarm at best. Even the board vote was an unusual split decision, 3-1, in favor of Christie, according to Editorial Page Editor Tom Moran.
Four months later the board has done an about-face, unanimously agreeing that they now regret the endorsement and, in the words of Moran, admitting they "blew this one."
"Yes, we knew Christie was a bully," Moran wrote in the February 9 column. "But we didn't know his crew was crazy enough to put people's lives at risk in Fort Lee as a means to pressure the mayor. We didn't know he would use Hurricane Sandy aid as a political slush fund. And we certainly didn't know that Hoboken Mayor Dawn Zimmer was sitting on a credible charge of extortion by Lt. Gov. Kim Guadagno."
The endorsement U-turn follows growing evidence tying Gov. Christie's administration to the so-called Bridgegate scandal, in which Christie aides shut down several approach lanes of the busy George Washington Bridge for four days in September, deliberately sparking traffic tie-ups in the town of Fort Lee as a means of political retribution.
Christie fired the aides in question when their role became public, and the issue has sparked demands for more information on what the governor knew and triggered legislative and criminal investigations into the incident.
"We had a severe case of buyer's remorse after endorsing him," Moran said Monday, a day after publishing an unusual column announcing the board's change of heart. "Since his re-election, we have learned some new things about him. We learned that his senior staff was willing to put people's lives at risk to make a political point on the bridge, we've learned that the Hoboken mayor has credible charges of criminal activity by the Lt. Governor and a couple of cabinet members, and we see more and more evidence that he is misusing [Hurricane] Sandy funds for political purposes."
Trying to explain New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie's unraveling political career as allegations mount about the bullying ways of his office, the New York Daily News' Mike Lupica, in his latest column, quoted a local operative who diagnosed Christie's sudden implosion this way: Hubris.
Christie's January-to-forget at first featured the startling revelation that his senior aides and appointees were in on a plan to seek political retribution by wreaking havoc on the city of Fort Lee, in the form of a massive, four-day traffic jam concocted under the phony guise of a traffic study.
New revelations in the days since suggest that the scandals reflect a culture of bullying and retribution that's become pervasive inside the governor's office. Over the weekend, the Democratic mayor of Hoboken, Dawn Zimmer, alleged that two senior members of Christie's administration threatened to hold Hurricane Sandy relief money hostage from the city until the mayor approved a redevelopment plan favored by the governor. Christie's office denies the charge; an editorial in the state's largest newspaper, which endorsed Christie three months ago, calls the extortion allegation "believable."
Zimmer hasn't been alone in alleging payback. According to Jersey City Mayor Steve Fulop, after he failed to endorse Christie's re-election last year a series of meetings he had scheduled with previously supportive Christie officials were abruptly canceled and never rescheduled. And Elizabeth, NJ's longtime mayor, Christian Bollwage, claims that after he opposed parts of Christie's legislative agenda in 2010, the state retaliated with collective punishment for Elizabeth locals by closing the city's only Department of Motor Vehicles department.
In the wake of the mounting revelations, the Daily News' Lupica quotes a political insider who described described Christie's mounting woes this way: "Christie has been on a continual roll and he thinks he's invincible. And once you think you are invincible, you've got a problem."
Question: Who was instrumental in convincing Chris Christie's political team that the governor was invincible? The Beltway media.
And so who might deserve some of the blame for the bullying abuse of power sponsored by Christie? The Beltway media.
Right now, Fox News is Chris Christie's best friend.
As New Jersey's Republican governor struggles to regain his political footing in the wake of the George Washington Bridge dirty tricks scandal, Fox News has been one of the few places to mount any kind of sustained defense on his behalf. That defense has alternately come in the form of downplaying the scandal at first, invoking Benghazi as often as possible, blaming a "feminized atmosphere" for the governor's troubles, and championing Christie's alleged brand of "leadership" in response to the scandal.
The strategy might be scattershot but at least Fox is coming to Christie's side at a time when many conservative voices are not.
Which leads to the question: is Fox chairman Roger Ailes once again advising Christie? It's worth asking given that Fox is now acting as Christie's de facto War Room, stressing the governor's talking points and doing its best to deflect attention away from the growing questions about why so many of his senior aides knew about the four-day scheme to choke off Fort Lee, N.J. with nightmarish traffic, yet Christie, he says, remained clueless.
And if Ailes is pitching in, it wouldn't be the first time he sat down with Christie in the role of an informal political advisor.
On Monday another shoe dropped on New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie's political career when it was reported he's facing a federal investigation regarding the state's use Hurricane Sandy relief funds.
This, of course, comes in the wake of the political bomb that detonated last week when a key Christie aide was revealed to have conspired, via email, with a Christie transportation appointee to enact political retribution by wreaking havoc on the city of Fort Lee, in the form of a massive, four-day traffic jam. The nightmare congestion was deliberately planned by shutting down vital lanes to the George Washington Bridge under the phony guise of a traffic study.
Since the scandal erupted, much of the conservative media has been scrambling to try to protect the possible presidential candidate from long-term political damage. They've done that via obfuscation (i.e. "Benghazi!") and by claiming Christie's response to the crisis has offered a clear lesson in "leadership"
The irony is thick because the unflattering portrait that has emerged of Christie in the last week is the exact same portrait conservatives have tried, unsuccessfully, to paint of Obama for five years: A thuggish politician with a thirst for revenge who's mired in corruption. Obama, we're reminded by Fox News, is a corrupt bully who's at the center of every alleged administration scandal, from the IRS targeting conservatives, to the wide-ranging Benghazi "cover-up."
Yet despite the hundreds of hours Republican Congressional committees have spent trying to ferret out Obama scandals, and the thousands and thousands of hours the right-wing media has devoted to that same goal since 2009, the New Jersey governor's office last week produced the type of smoking gun document ("Time for some traffic problems in Fort Lee") that Obama's critics can still only dream about.
But of course they'll keep dreaming.
"Chris Christie is someone who is magical in the way politicians can be magical." Time's Mark Halperin appearing on Meet The Press, November 10 2013.
A political bombshell detonated in my home state of New Jersey yesterday when published emails and text messages revealed that Gov. Chris Christie's deputy chief of staff conspired with a Christie transportation appointee to create a four-day traffic jam last September, allegedly to punish a local Democratic mayor who refused to endorse the governor's re-election. The unfolding drama not only raises doubts about Christie's political future but also about the way the mainstream press has presented him over the years.
The widening dirty tricks scandal features patronage and political retribution wrapped in an unseemly culture of intimidation. In sharp contrast, the national political press has spent the last four years presenting, and even marketing, Christie as an above-the-fray politician who thrives on competence.
He's been relentlessly and adoringly depicted as some sort of Straight Shooter. He's an authentic and bipartisan Every Man, a master communicator, and that rare politician who cuts through the stagecraft and delivers hard truths. Christie's coverage has been a long-running, and rather extreme, case of personality trumping substance.
But now the bridge bombshell casts all of that flattering coverage into question. How could the supposedly astute Beltway press corps spend four years selling Christie as a Straight Shooter when his close aides did things like orchestrate a massive traffic jam apparently to punish the governor's political foes? When an appointee joked in texts about school buses being trapped in the political traffic backup? How could Christie be a Straight Shooter when he's been caught peddling lies about the unfolding scandal and now claims he was misled about what people close to him were up to?
The truth is Christie was never the Straight Shooter that political reporters and pundits made him out to be. Not even close, as I'll detail below. Instead, the Straight Shooter story represented appealing fiction for the press. They tagged him as "authentic" and loved it when he got into yelling matches with voters.
From the December 3 edition of Premiere Radio Networks' The Rush Limbaugh Show:
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The announcement yesterday that New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie will not run for president represents the latest Fox News failure in its attempt to put its stamp on the Republican primary season. Having turned itself into a purely political operation, and one that unapologetically works towards a partisan goal, Fox News and its chief Roger Ailes want very much to play the kingmaker role this election cycle and anoint, at least unofficially, a Fox News Candidate in 2012.
But it seems every time Fox News sets its collective sights on a possible Republican candidate (preferably one with a Tea Party flavor), he or she implodes, or in the case of Christie, refuses to get in the race.
Christie's bowing out is just the latest in a string of setbacks for Fox. It comes on the heels of campaign disappointments from Sarah Palin, Donald Trump and Rick Perry. At one point this year, Fox News embraced each one, showering them with potent bouts of glowing coverage, only to watch their electoral fortunes slip away. (Perry's polling fall from grace has been less dramatic than Palin's and Trump's, but has still been pronounced in recent weeks.)
There's no doubt that Fox News/Ailes wanted Christie to run for president. Indeed, the cable channel for much of the year doubled as the Chris Christie Fan Club. (And yes, that meant obediently ignoring embarrassing Christie stumbles.)
Among the gushing highlights:
Poor Roger Ailes. He wants to play kingmaker, he's just having trouble finding a viable king.