With his presidential hopes fading, the New Jersey governor is resorting to some creative revisionism about the scandal that brought down his career.
Photo via Flickr user Gage Skidmore
For four days in September of 2013, two out of three access lanes closed down at the George Washington Bridge toll plaza in Fort Lee, New Jersey, gnarling traffic in the sleepy bedroom suburb. It held up emergency vehicles, stalled school buses—by the time the lanes reopened, furious tristate commuters had lost a combined 2,800 vehicle hours each day.
At the time, public officials in New Jersey dismissed the lane closings as a traffic study. As we all know now, it was actually a plot hatched by officials in Governor Chris Christie's administration to exact political revenge on the mayor of Fort Lee, a Democrat who had declined to endorse the governor's reelection campaign.
Earlier this month, two former state officials—Bridget Kelly, Christie's former deputy chief of staff, and Bill Baroni, the governor's top Port Authority appointee—were indicted on federal fraud charges in the bridge closure scandal; a third, former Port Authority official David Wildstein, pled guilty to conspiracy to commit fraud and conspiracy.
All three argue that that they weren't the only ones involved in the lane closures—that key members of Christie's office definitely knew what was up in those early days of September 2013, including, perhaps, the governor himself, a man who, at the time, was fashioning himself as the savior of the Republican Party.
But the question of just who knew what and when could remain unanswered for a while longer. Announcing the charges, the US Attorney for New Jersey acknowledged that there were other, unnamed co-conspirators mentioned in the indictments, but has said that he doesn't expect anyone else will be charged. But on Tuesday, prosecutors filed a motion to seal the evidence until the trial begins, claiming that they want to protect other public officials from "intense media scrutiny."
Lawyers for Kelly and Baroni have objected, saying that evidence is their best shot at vindication—in other words, that it will show they weren't the only ones behind the Bridgegate shitstorm. Wildstein's lawyer has also argued that "evidence exists" implicating Christie's involvement—but what that evidence might be is not yet known, and, if the seal is approved by the judge, we may not find out for another six months—just enough time for Christie to launch his long-anticipated presidential campaign.
Christie, meanwhile, is already taking his victory lap. Since loudly proclaiming his innocence at a nearly two-hour press conference last January, he has maintained that he knew nothing about the lane closures. As the Bridgegate scandal has unfolded, the governor's political persona has oscillated wildly, from distressed—a portlier Nixon, before the Watergate levees broke—to triumphant barnstormer, confident he'll outlast the naysayers. But after the indictments were announced, he took to Twitter to once again deny his involvement, casting himself as both the victim and the hero of the whole sordid scheme.
He took this Bridgegate martyrdom one step further Thursday, appearing on CNBC's "Squawk Box" to attack what he sees as a liberal bias in the media's coverage of the scandal. He even went so far as to demand an apology from reporters who have questioned his involvement.
"I do believe there is an absolute bias and a rush to judgment. You all know this. You saw the coverage of me 15 months ago. I was guilty, guilty. I had done it," Christie said. "Now we're 15 months later, where are the apologies pouring in [now] that not one thing I said on the day after the bridge situation has been proven to be wrong?"
Of course, Christie's own brand of Bridgegate logic is completely detached from actual public perception of him and his adminstration. According to interviews with the New York Times, his closest acquaintances have all but dismissed the notion that the New Jersey governor has a chance with voters after the Bridgegate mess. Even his own state is sending a clear message: In a recent Quinnipiac poll, 65 percent of New Jersey residents said their governor wasn't fit to run the country.
The harshest words towards the governor came from a Newark Star-Ledgerop-ed this week, after Christie went on Fox News to defend his low polling as a sign that his people want him to stay in office in New Jersey, not on Pennsylvania Avenue. In the piece, entitled, "Gov. Christie loses his marbles on national TV," the paper said the governor was "out of touch with reality" in thinking that he can actually make a credible run for president.
"It's no wonder that New Jersey is screaming a warning to the rest of the country," the paper wrote. "God forbid he gets a chance to make an even bigger mess on a larger stage."
None of this seems to have deterred the governor from charging ahead with his planned 2016 campaign. In recent weeks, Christie has hired campaign staff in New Hampshire , a key early primary state, defended NSA surveillance in a hawkish foreign policy speech to boost his hawkish credentials, and enlisted his wife to reassure donors that the campaign they'd dreamed of back in 2013 was still possible, despite Christie's tanking poll numbers.
"It's clear he's definitely running for President," said Ben Dworkin, director of the Rebovich Institute for New Jersey Politics at Rider University. "And that Bridgegate hasn't deterred him whatsoever. The best news for Christie is that the trial isn't going to be until November."
"He needs to rebrand himself as a straight talker, who can appease Democrats and actually win," he said. "How Bridgegate hurt Christie is that it halted any major accomplishments from getting done, and strengthened this narrative that he's a typical politician. And that's his whole thing: that he's not a typical politician."
There may still be time for Christie to make a comeback, Dworkin added, pointing out that the next six months could give the governor room to boost his poll numbers, and connect with voters in early primary states.
But Christie,in characteristic Christie fashion, doesn't seem too concerned with winning over hearts and minds. That much was clear at Wednesday's New Jersey Legislative Correspondents Club Show, an annual event where the governor and state house journalists take turns roasting each other, usually in jest. Usually, Christie shows a funny video, starring himself, but this year was different, with the governor launching into a profanity-laced diatribe against the reporters in the room.
"The reason we don't have a video is that we don't give a shit about you anymore," he announced. "We don't give a shit about this or any of you."
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