New Jersey Governor Chris Christie arrived in Iowa on Thursday, surrounded by a media gaggle befitting a presidential front-runner, just as a new poll was released showing him trailing Hillary Clinton by a single point. It was Christie’s first visit to the caucus state in over two and a half years, and he unleashed his charms at GOP fundraisers and on Hawkeye locals, assuring them, “I will be back a lot.”
In Marion, at M.J’s Restaurant, the Des Moines Register reported, the governor “shook hands with just about everyone in the room, from waitresses to a baby girl whose mother was bonked by a cameraman’s equipment as reporters jostled for the best video footage.”
And more than 900 miles away from the excitement, Democrats in Trenton were proving Christie’s viability in a different way.
When evidence emerged linking Christie’s office to the plot to close the bridge lanes in the Hudson River town of Fort Lee, Democratic legislators were quick to organize. They formed a committee to investigate him, and since January, they have been calling witnesses and subpoenaing documents in an effort to uncover the sequel to “time for some traffic problems in Fort Lee”—the email read ’round the world.
The joint committee, led by Assemblyman John Wisniewski and Senator Loretta Weinberg, formed after it was decided that having separate committees in each branch of the legislature to investigate the lane closures would be a monumental waste of time and money. But now many, including some of the committees own members, are wondering if it's been a waste anyway.
Asked what the point of the committee was, Assemblyman Michael Patrick Carroll, a Republican member and former Christie rival, said: “I’m glad you’re on the same page as I am, because I’ve been trying to figure that out for about six months.”
No one has admitted to corruption or obviously illegal behavior. The revelations have mostly been in the form of witnesses either contradicting themselves or other people in their efforts to remember timelines and correspondence. And they failed to force two key witnesses—Bridget Anne Kelly and Bill Stepien—to produce documents. Another hit to the credibility of the committee: They have focused on what one member described as the “rinky-dink” operation to close the lanes, when there are other, potentially seriously damaging events being investigated by more legitimate entities.
I met Wisniewski in his hometown of Sayreville the morning that the committee was to be formed in late January, and rode shotgun as he drove to Trenton. Wisniewski had been serving on the Transportation Committee since he joined the Assembly in 1995, thus all matters of transportation in the state were of interest to him. He had co-sponsored the bill which made it illegal to talk on a hand-held cellphone while driving (though that did not stop him from twice breaking his own law when entertaining hand-held calls from “Loretta” [presumably Weinberg] during our hour-long trek to Trenton) and he had long kept a piercing blue eye on the notoriously disorganized Port Authority.
Using his subpoena power as the transportation committee chairman, Wisniewski obtained the documents that uncovered the scandal, which indicated, at the very least, rampant incompetence at a large, powerful bi-state agency that bled into the administration, and, at most, perhaps, a colossal abuse of power from one of the most powerful governors in America. At the time, it made sense to most that there should be an investigative committee.
Eight Democrats and four Republicans formed the initial group, despite cries of a witch hunt from the outnumbered right wing and fears that politics would overtake the process. Some Christie-ites go as far as to charge that letting politics take over the process was Wisniewski’s plan all along. (Something he vehemently denies.)
Wisniewski has a statesman-like demeanor and pleasant appearance that lends itself well to television—something he has capitalized on.
Since November, he has appeared on television—mostly cable, mostly MSNBC—about 80 times. When I first started asking him for interviews in mid-January, they were often pushed back due to his TV schedule, which included traveling to Washington, D.C., to appear on Meet the Press. In his law office, there is an untouched conference room that looks straight out of the The West Wing—shiny, oak table; large American and New Jersey flags, freshly painted walls—which his spokesman told me they sometimes use for remote interviews.
Asked about criticism of his seemingly constant presence on television, Wisniewski said: “That’s an interesting question. You called me. I didn’t call you. It’s a naive, simplistic argument, because if I’ve been on TV, it’s not because I call up and say, ‘Hey, why don’t I come up tonight and talk to you about the bridge?’ These shows, they choose what they want to talk about, and they call me and they ask for information just like you are doing now.”
A network insider said they knew of at least one host who complained about Wisniewski’s aggressive outreach.
Wisniewski claims Republicans are refusing to cooperate with his investigation, and then blaming delays on him. Wisniewski said the governor’s office is engaged in a “protracted document production,” and that GOP committee members are constantly sending mixed signals about the direction of the investigation (one week, Wisniewski said, they’ll want to end the investigation, and then the next, they’ll ask to look into something else.) “If you can’t beat the message, then what you need to do is beat the messenger,” he told me. “I think what the Republicans are doing is they’re pounding on the table.”
Carroll told me he initially joined the committee to investigate the Port Authority and figure out how to reform it—but the group has, much to his dismay, instead focused solely on the lane closures.
“There just doesn’t seem to be a there there,” Carroll said. “If they’ve got a ‘gotcha!’ moment, it certainly hasn’t appeared. They found one email from Bridget—the ‘gotcha!’—and after that, everything’s been sort of on hold. Some of it doesn’t look good, but it certainly doesn’t look like it was corrupt or a crime.”
If there was a crime committed, that would be addressed by the United States Attorney, Paul Fishman, who is conducting his own investigation into the matter. While the scope and exact focus of Fishman’s investigation is not known—because his operation has been, if you are to believe him, devoid of legitimate leaks—it is known that the objective of any U.S. Attorney is to get indictments.
Less clear is the end game for the committee, which calls into question the need for its existence. A relatively expensive existence: close to $800,000 at last count. Not much, compared to Christie’s legal fees, but nothing to scoff at. (Wisniewski said criticizing the committee for legal fees is wrong because of how much Christie has spent on his internal review.)
Wisniewski assures that the point of the committee is to secure checks and balances and also for the benefit of the public—because who knows what Fishman will ever reveal of his findings? There are questions, Wisniewski told me, that “may not ever be answered by the U.S. Attorney process.” But it seems likely that they may not ever be answered by the committee, either. (A spokesman for Christie, Kevin Roberts, declined to comment on the investigation, but noted that the administration planned to “continue to cooperate with appropriate investigations.”)
“Every witness we’ve heard from and every witness we’re likely to hear from gives us the same little speech—it’s 30 seconds long. They say, ‘I didn’t know anything about it,’ and then they spend the next five or six hours repeating that speech,” Carroll said, dismissively.
Within the bowels of the capitol on Thursday, in a high-ceilinged committee room, a modest crowd gathered to hear testimony from Regina Egea, Christie’s incoming chief of staff who served as his liaison to the Port Authority during the lane closures. She revealed that she texted the governor before the lane closures became a scandal, and then deleted the texts—something she said she often does.
It was an interesting piece of information for those watching the investigation closely—but nowhere approaching a smoking gun. It was not an indictment of Christie, nor did it imply Christie’s fingerprints were anywhere closer to the plot to close the lanes than had previously been known.
It was, in short, just another drip in the slow unraveling of so-far largely inconsequential information obtained by a committee that hasn’t made clear what, if anything, it plans to do with all it learns.
In front of another capitol—Iowa’s—the Democratic National Committee staged a counter-attack to Christie’s warmly received visit, intended to remind people about Bridgegate. Undaunted, Christie went about his trip—perhaps proving to Iowa’s Democrats a lesson New Jersey’s have already learned themselves: Keeping a front-runner down is no easy task.