New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie has the eyes of the US political world on him Thursday morning. He’s got a lot of explaining to do about e-mails and text messages released Wednesday that show top aides conspired to create traffic jams on the George Washington Bridge to punish the mayor of a nearby town who didn’t support the governor’s reelection.
Governor Christie denies he knew anything about this and has said the aides in question acted without his knowledge. His problem is that it is a story that’s easy for voters to grasp (unlike financial skullduggery), and it goes to the heart of his long-cultivated image as a no-nonsense bipartisan problem-solver.
He’s holding a press conference Thursday morning at which he may address some of the obvious outstanding questions on the scandal. Here are three we anticipate he’ll have to confront again and again in coming weeks.
Who's lying? The choice here is pretty stark: Either Christie’s staff has lied to him, or Christie is not being upfront with the people of New Jersey.
Last December, Christie said he’d made it clear to his senior aides that if anyone had any knowledge about the cause of the bridge closings they had to come forward.
“They’ve all assured me that they don’t,” he told reporters.
That’s not true, given that at one point his deputy chief of staff, Bridget Ann Kelly, e-mailed that “It’s time for some traffic problems in Fort Lee.” Did she and other involved aides mislead the governor? What did he know and when did he know it?
Why bother? The implication from the communications, first published by NorthJersey.com, is that the traffic jams are payback. Fort Lee, N.J., the town next to the GW Bridge local approaches, is run by a Democratic mayor who last year did not support the Republican Christie for reelection.
“It will be a tough November for this little Serbian,” said Christie associate David Wildstein, a Port Authority official, referring to Fort Lee Mayor Mark Sokolich.
First of all, Mr. Sokolich is actually Croatian, and if you know anything about the Balkans, that’s like calling a Red Sox supporter a Yankee fan. Croatians and Serbians have historically clashed, a lot.
Second, we get that Christie was trying to drum up Democratic endorsements. He got a lot of them – he was a popular governor cruising to reelection. But he is, or was, the most popular governor in the US, and he did not need Sokolich’s support at all. Engaging in dangerous political retribution to run up the score sounds like a page from President Richard Nixon’s playbook. The Watergate break-in was intended to get intelligence on a Democratic Party whose nominee was George McGovern, one of the weakest major-party candidates in modern times.
What else? It’s possible that now other stories will surface about the harshness of Christie’s political methods. Old stories will get a second look. By appearing to confirm what many political observers long suspected about Christie’s tendency toward retribution, Bridge-gate (or Bridge-ghazi, or whatever) could lead to a long period of difficult Christie press.
“There’s a lot about Christie that’s deeply appealing. But there’s one big thing that’s not: He’s someone who uses his office to intimidate people and punish or humiliate perceived enemies,” writes Ezra Klein, the Washington Post's "Wonkblog" blogger.