Politics

01.10.14

Did Chris Christie Turn a Blind Eye?

The New Jersey governor says he only discovered the truth about “Bridgegate” on Wednesday. He’s not stupid, so it must have been willful ignorance.

Well, that was a virtuoso performance by Chris Christie yesterday. For about 20 minutes. Unfortunately for him, he spoke, and spoke, and spoke, for about 110 minutes.

For the first 20, he had something to say—firing deputy chief of staff Bridget Kelly, announcing that his former campaign manager Bill Stepien would have no role going forward either in Trenton or with the Republican Governors’ Association. He summoned the requisite fake contrition and outrage. It all could have been a big recovery.

Then he just kept talking. Let’s put it this way. When you say toward the beginning of a press conference with some degree of dramatic flair that you’re going to go up to Ft. Lee to meet with the mayor, and then you end up talking long enough so that a chyron eventually appears at the bottom of the TV screen that says (I forget the precise wording) Ft. Lee Mayor Doesn’t Want to Meet With Christie, you’ve gone way past lights out. (They did meet in the end.) He was like Norma Desmond up there, still craving the spotlight after the spotlight had long since been dimmed.

Ignorance is bliss. He did everything he could not to know.

In much of pundit land, “time” equals “candor,” as Christie is undoubtedly aware, so he surely knew that the longer he went on, the more some pundits would gush. But I think he started to repeat himself and become tiresome, and he left thousands of words on video tape that can someday be used against him.

Maybe there was a reason Christie was filibustering. Sometime shortly after noon, his disgraced ex-Port Authority  appointee David Wildstein started testifying before the legislative committee leading the investigation into “Bridgegate”, having failed in his bid to quash the subpoena that required him to do so. Good chance, it seems to me, that if Christie had finished up before noon, the cable networks would have gone straight to Wildstein invoking the Fifth Amendment (as indeed they eventually did). So maybe Christie was running out the clock. The more him, the less Wildstein.

Video screenshot

On Thursday, Governor Chris Christie apologized for 'Bridgegate' and announced the firing of a senior aide.

Turns out, though, that Christie was running out the clock in more ways than one. In New Jersey, a legislature’s subpoena power into a particular investigation ends when the legislative session ends. In this case, that’s next week: January 14. That might not mean much, because the assembly (where the investigation is taking place) is in Democratic hands in the current (ending) session, and will remain in Democratic hands in the next one, so one might assume the new legislature would renew the probe.

But here’s the wrinkle: The speakership of the assembly is changing hands, from Sheila Oliver, who has a rocky history with Christie, to Vincent Prieto, who has no such history. So maybe there was a chance that Prieto wasn’t going to continue the investigation. Indeed, he’d refused to say one way or the other for a long time as the scandal percolated. But once these damning emails came out, Prieto had little choice, and sure enough, he finally said Wednesday that the investigation will continue into the next session.

So think of this from Christie’s perspective: He had to be sitting there thinking, all I have to do here is make it to January 15 when the new session starts, and maybe this whole thing will die.

And so, the most plausible current theory of the case to me. Christie knew, in his head, what happened here. He’s not a stupid man. And even if he were a stupid man, this controversy has been in the media for several weeks now. So there can be virtually no question that he knew that the notion that the lanes were closed for political reasons existed as an allegation. But he pointedly didn’t ask any questions, or at least any probing questions in search of honest answers.

Stop and think about that. If it’s true, as he’s been saying, that he had no idea all this was political until Wednesday, then he’s telling us that while allegations were swirling around in the state’s newspapers and political web sites, he a) perhaps didn’t even read them or b) read them but didn’t ask any hard questions of either his staff, his campaign manager, or his Port Authority appointees.  Remember, he said he didn’t even speak to Bridget Kelly about this until Wednesday.

So that was Christie’s probable posture here. Ignorance is bliss. He did everything he could not to know, waiting for January 15, when, he was hoping, the whole thing would just go away.

But now it’s not going away in the assembly, and of course he now has the bigger problem of the U.S. Attorney sniffing around. He hung the people involved in this out to dry. When the U.S. Attorney starts asking questions, how strong an urge are they going to feel to protect the governor?

This story is a long way from over. What was redacted (or can we just say censored?) from those emails and texts? Was this really “the exception, not the rule” in how the Christie administration tries to enforce political loyalty? We’ll presumably find out answers to these questions.

And if even Christie is telling the truth, that Wednesday was the first time he’d heard that the lane closures were a political act, all that means is that he went out of his way to make sure he didn’t hear it, which in turn means there was a grotesque abuse of political power that happened right under his nose and that he not only didn’t try to get to the bottom of, but tried to sweat it out until January 15. That’s some definition of leadership.