It’s no surprise that Chris Christie has come out swinging on the “Bridge-gate” scandal.
It’s his nature – rhetorically, at least – and it indicates just how serious the fallout from last September’s shutdown of traffic lanes to the George Washington Bridge has become for New Jersey’s embattled governor.
For weeks, Gov. Christie essentially hunkered down, insisting that he knew nothing about a political dirty trick concocted by some on his staff aimed at a Democratic mayor, which caused massive delays for commuters, school buses, and commercial and emergency vehicles.
But in an email to supporters Saturday – not long after he’d been booed at a Super Bowl event – he fired back with a missile headlined “5 Things You Should Know about the Bombshell That's Not a Bombshell.”
It’s aimed at his latest and perhaps principal accuser, David Wildstein, the former Port Authority of New York and New Jersey official who personally ordered the lane closures at the suggestion of Christie deputy chief of staff Bridget Anne Kelly.
In a letter to the Port Authority Friday, Mr. Wildstein’s attorney wrote, "Evidence exists ... tying Mr. Christie to having knowledge of the lane closures, during the period when the lanes were closed, contrary to what the governor stated publicly in a two-hour press conference.”
Christie had claimed that he had “first found out about it after it was over," blaming it on underlings who had lied to him.
Wildstein offers no proof of his claim, and he does not suggest that Christie had any foreknowledge of – let alone been part of the planning for – a bit of surreptitious trouble-making aimed at one perceived as a political enemy.
Critics say Wildstein just wants to cover his own backside – trying to avoid prosecution and get the Port Authority to cover his legal expenses.
But the daily drumbeat of news – Wildstein and others (including the Governor’s former campaign manager) seeking immunity from prosecution in return for cooperating more fully with investigations by the New Jersey Legislature and the US Attorney’s office, Christie’s campaign organization seeking permission to use left-over funds (and raise more money) for a legal defense – apparently prompted Christie to assume a more aggressive stance.
“David Wildstein has been publicly asking for immunity since the beginning, been held in contempt by the New Jersey legislature for refusing to testify, failed to provide this so-called ‘evidence’ when he was first subpoenaed by the NJ Legislature and is looking for the Port Authority to pay his legal bills,” the e-mail from Christie’s office says.
“Bottom line – David Wildstein will do and say anything to save David Wildstein,” the e-mail reads. That Christie and Wildstein were in high school together – although, Christie insists, never close friends – just adds to the drama.
On the Sunday TV news shows, Republicans came to Christie’s defense, knocking back suggestions by critics that he resign as head of the Republican Governors Association. That included US Rep. Paul Ryan, Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal, and former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani. (Although Mr. Giuliani also has said there’s a “fifty-fifty” chance that Christie knew about the traffic lane caper ahead of time.)
For their part, Democrats are taking a mixed approach to Christie’s woes.
Speaking on NBC's "Meet the Press" Sunday, State Assemblyman John Wisniewski said, "we don't have any proof right now that the governor said go and close the lanes."
If Wildstein has evidence, Wisniewski said, "We don't really know what that evidence is." More information could be revealed as a result of subpoenas due to be answered by Monday, but he emphasized that "nothing yet implicates the governor directly."
Meanwhile, the Democratic National Committee took advantage of Super Bowl Sunday – the big game is being played in New Jersey – to poke political fun at Christie in a football-themed Internet commercial.
"It's going to be a long game," the ad says, suggesting that Christie – until recently the front-runner among Republicans yearning to be the next president – will be in Democrats’ sights for 2016.