Wednesday, January 8, 2014

Burn Chris Christie down

Updated on January 9th, after Chris Christie's press conference.

The Fort Lee bridge scandal is now much more than just an annoyance for the Chris Christie administration. New details implicate at least one member of Christie's "inner circle" in the scandal, Deputy Chief of Staff Bridget Anne Kelly.

For those unaware of the background here, on the first day of the current school year in New Jersey, September 9th, 2013, two of the three traffic lanes allowing access to Fort Lee, New Jersey from the George Washington Bridge were surreptitiously closed by the New Jersey Port Authority with no warning whatsoever. Days later, Port Authority official David Wildstein claimed the closures occurred so the Port Authority could review "traffic safety patterns" (his words in an email he sent to the press) at the Bridge. Frankly, I'm not even sure what this phrase actully means. "Traffic safety" is one thing, "traffic patterns" is another, but what the hell is "traffic safety patterns"? It doesn't make any sense in this context.

Regardless, that's the meat of what happened. The inside story on all of this is that David Wildstein is--actually, I should say was--an official hired by a Chris Christie appointee at the Port Authority, its Executive Director Bill Baroni. Wildstein resigned from the Port Authority in December, effective January 1st of this year. Aside from this link to Christie, Wildstein was also an old school chum of the Governor's and a former mayor of a New Jersey town. And it was postulated by some that the closures were wholly punitive, that Fort Lee was targeted (the closures caused real problems) because its Mayor--Mark Sokolich--did not endorse Christie in the latter's reelection campaign. Here's a good timeline, which includes recent developments.

Up until today, that's all there was. Things smelled bad, but there was really no hard evidence directly linking the Christie Administration with the closures, much less indicating that the closures were some kind of political payback. Until today. For now, we have a series of e-mails released by Wildstein (who was under subpoena to do so) that more or less prove the allegations are true. From TPM, first this exchange:
Documents obtained Wednesday by TPM show that Christie's Deputy Chief of Staff for Legislative and Intergovernmental Affairs, Bridget Anne Kelly, talked about the closures with the agency that oversees the bridge weeks before they ocurred. 
"Time for some traffic problems in Fort Lee," Kelly wrote in an Aug. 13 email to David Wildstein, one of Christie's appointees to the Port Authority of New York & New Jersey. 
"Got it," Wildstein replied.
Then this exchange:

On Sept. 9 and Sept. 10, Wildstein was apparently receiving ongoing updates about the "traffic disaster" in Fort Lee. On Sept. 10, Wildstein said to someone via text message that Fort Lee's mayor had reached out to Bill Baroni, another Christie appointee, expressing worries about "getting kids to school." 
"Help please. It's maddening," Sokolich wrote in a message to Baroni. 
That message appears to have been passed on to Wildstein who wrote, "Is it wrong that I am smiling?" 
It is unclear who Wildstein was corresponding with, however the recipient of his message said, "No." 
"I feel badly about the kids," wrote Wildstein. "I guess." 
"They are the children of Buono voters," joked Wildstein's correspondent, referring to Christie's challenger in last November's election, Barbara Buono.
This is damning stuff. Christie's Deputy Chief of Staff is clearly directing Wildstein to use his position to screw with Fort Lee. Bill Baroni (who, like Wildstein, has stepped down from his post) was clearly in on all of this, as was at least one other person, whose name we do not know. And yes, that person could indeed be Christie, though there is no evidence that it is.

Regardless, the fact of the matter is that Christie's Chief of Staff made this happen. And she did so with the help of two people who are both politically and personally connected to Christie. The response to these latest revelation form Christie? Entirely predictable:
"What I've seen today for the first time is unacceptable. I am outraged and deeply saddened to learn that not only was I misled by a member of my staff, but this completely inappropriate and unsanctioned conduct was made without my knowledge. One thing is clear: this type of behavior is unacceptable and I will not tolerate it because the people of New Jersey deserve better. This behavior is not representative of me or my Administration in any way, and people will be held responsible for their actions."
He's "outraged." What else could he possibly say? And "people will be held responsible." Again, what other reaction could he publicly have? But the thing is, the behavior is representative of his Administration, as a matter of course. And therefore, it is representative of him, unless one allows that Christie--known as a very "hands on" politician--had absolutely no clue about what at least one high level staffer was doing, and also that Christie's pals--Wildstein and Baroni--never made a remark to Christie about their successful operation. I find both propositions to be highly unlikely, to say the least.

For all of this fits in exactly with Christie's persona as an overbearing "old school" style of politician, a persona that some have found quite acceptable, if not actually endearing. He fits a caricature of a political boss that is usually reserved for cinema or television. HBO's Boardwalk Empire would have a place for Christie, as would a host of movies dealing with crime and punishments in the 1920's and 1930's. Christie is the quintessential political boss, the guy who does favors and expects then in return, the guy who remembers every slight, no matter how small, the guy who wields his power freely and has no qualms about using it to damage or destroy adversaries.

As the e-mail exchange above indicates, the closures were all about Mayor Sokolich getting exactly what he deserved, in the minds of Christie's troops. The idea that such a mindset isn't reflective of Christie's leadership style is simply not believable. The fish stinks from the head, as it were.

Cheers, all.

P.S. And just in case anyone needs to hear it, I told you so.

Update:

Today, Chris Christie held a press conference about the scandal and the recent revelations in that regard (the e-mails noted above). He announced that his Deputy Chief of Staff Bridget Anne Kelly had been fired and that his campaign manager Bill Stepien had been basically cut loose from any role with the Governor's administration or other operations. Christie also apologized to Fort Lee, to Mayor Sokolich, and to pretty much everyone else for the episode.

He insists he knew nothing about any of this, that the recent revelations were a total surprise to him, but that he also accepted responsibility for what happened. He also said he would continue to ask questions of his staff, but as of now he believed there were no other members involved in the decision to close off access lanes to Fort Lee.

All in all, it was a well-delivered show. And I think that is exactly what it was, a show. Because it simply defies logic that Kelly was the mastermind behind all of this, that she instituted the plan all on her own. The content of the e-mails suggest--very clearly in my opinion--that what happened was pre-planned, that Kelly was simply giving the signal to go forward. And it defies logic that this all happened under Christie's nose and those of the rest of his staff because, again, Christie has never appeared to be the detached, clueless kind of leader required for such a scenario.

The fish still stinks from the head.

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