Politics

Jan 10, 2014 12:26 PM by David Randall

Christie crisis

It went on for almost two hours: New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie said he was blindsided, betrayed, embarrassed, heartbroken, humiliated and sad. He said he had lost sleep. He fired a top aide. He called his own staff stupid.

What he did not do is resolve the mystery behind the closing of lanes at the George Washington Bridge in September, creating a monster traffic jam that turned the city of Fort Lee into a parking lot for four days.

State lawmakers say it appears to be an act of political payback but want to know more. They got no help when David Wildstein, a Christie appointee whose emails and texts place him in the middle of the scandal, pleaded the Fifth at an Assembly hearing Thursday.
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It all leaves plenty of questions hanging in the bridge fiasco. Here are some of the most pressing:

1. How did this start?

Christie opened a press conference on Thursday by announcing that he had fired Bridget Kelly, his deputy chief of staff, for lying to him before he told the public in December that his staff was not involved in the lane closures.

In an email from August that was made public this week, Kelly appeared to set the process in motion when she wrote to David Wildstein, an executive at the bridge-controlling Port Authority: "Time for some traffic problems in Fort Lee."

"Got it," he wrote back.

The mayor of Fort Lee, a Democrat, had failed to endorse Christie for re-election. The exchange reads as if it wasn't the first time that Kelly or Wildstein had heard or thought of such a plan. But it's not clear whose idea it was in the first place.

Christie insisted that he had no knowledge of it. Kelly has not spoken publicly since the emails surfaced. And Christie himself said that he didn't talk to her between learning of the emails on Wednesday morning and firing her on Thursday morning.

Besides the Assembly, investigations have been promised by the Port Authority, a U.S. Senate committee and Christie himself, and the U.S. attorney in Newark has opened an inquiry. The chairman of the Assembly's transportation committee said Thursday night on MSNBC that the committee planned to subpoena Kelly.

2. What happens to Wildstein?

The attorney for David Wildstein, a former Chris Christie appointee, tells members of a New Jersey State Assembly committee why his client is pleading the Fifth.

Christie appointed Wildstein to his Port Authority job but took pains to distance himself on Thursday, saying that while the two had attended high school together, they were not friends. The governor pointed out that there were 1,800 students there at the time.

Christie said he believed they had reconnected in 2000, when Wildstein was working on a New Jersey Senate campaign, but he said some published accounts have suggested "an emotional relationship and closeness between me and David that doesn't exist."

Wildstein, appearing before the transportation committee, wouldn't even answer basic questions about his employment history, saying he had a constitutional right to silence. The committee disagreed and held him in contempt.

John Wisniewski, the Democratic assemblyman who chairs the committee, said he plans to refer the charge to a county prosecutor. But he made clear that the committee isn't finished with Wildstein and wants to know what he knows.

"It raises even more questions about what happened with these lane closings when it comes to finding out who knew what and when," Wisniewski said in a statement Thursday.
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3. How could Christie not have known? And if he didn't, how did his office become so poisonous?

Christie said that he thought of his office as a family: "We work together and we tell each other the truth. We support each other when we need to be supported, and we admonish each other when we need to be admonished."

His political opponents found it hard to believe that he could have been kept out of the loop about the lane closures.

"He runs a paramilitary organization, very strict discipline," Barbara Buono, the state senator whom Christie trounced in his re-election campaign last fall, said on MSNBC. "People don't sneeze or go to the bathroom without asking Christie's permission to."

Even if Christie didn't know, there are questions about whether his lieutenants bully his political opponents. Steve Fulop, the Democratic mayor of Jersey City, said again on Thursday that the governor's office canceled meetings with his people after Fulop failed to endorse Christie's re-election bid.

That seems to contradict Christie's representation of the relationship during his press conference: "The fact of the matter is we've continued to work with Jersey City over the course of time since he's been mayor."

Fulop said on his Facebook page that it "couldn't have been a more distorted representation of the facts." He added: "And just the start of it."

A former New Jersey governor, Tom Kean, a Republican, questioned how it was possible that Kelly could have ordered the Port Authority to close the lanes with only a few people involved in the discussion.

On MSNBC's "Andrea Mitchell Reports," he wondered "how that atmosphere was allowed to exist."

"I don't think we've heard the last of this," he said.

4. What else is in the documents?

The emails and texts released so far are plenty damning - Wildstein referred to the Fort Lee mayor as "this little Serbian" and suggested he wasn't bothered by schoolchildren caught in the jam because they belonged to Buono voters.

But what has been released publicly is only a small fraction of the thousands of pages of documents that the state Assembly is reviewing, and Wisniewski, the committee chair, said Thursday that he's looking for more.

"We intend to continue our investigation, but this would all be made easier if Gov. Christie did the right thing and voluntarily released all communications so everyone could find out with certainty what happened," he said.

It is still not publicly known, for example, whom Wildstein was texting with when he made the crack about the Buono voters.
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5. What traffic study?

Bill Baroni, a top Christie appointee at the Port Authority, first told lawmakers that the lanes were closed as part of a traffic study. Police and the public were never told of such a study. Baroni later resigned.

On Thursday, Christie seemed to keep alive the possibility that a traffic study had something to do with it.

"I don't know whether this was some type of rogue political operation that morphed into a traffic study or a traffic study that morphed into an additional rogue political - I don't know," he said.

He also said: "There still may have been a traffic study that now has political overtones to it as well."

But the head of the Port Authority, who is not a Christie appointee, told state lawmakers in December that he knew of no such study, and no one has come forward with evidence of one.

6. What's the damage for Christie among Republicans?

Christie is widely believed to be considering a run for the Republican presidential nomination in 2016. But it remains to be seen how party leaders will judge his handling of the crisis.

House Speaker John Boehner was asked whether Christie's response was sufficient and said: "I think so. I think so." Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina was less charitable: He said it "reinforces a narrative that's troublesome about the guy, he's kind of a bully."

Two possible opponents for Christie in the Republican primaries, Sens. Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio, both dodged questions about the New Jersey governor on Thursday. But Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky, another potential candidate, offered this as he left a White House event:

"I don't know who emailed who and who works for whom. I have been in traffic before, though, and I know how angry I am when I'm in traffic, and I've always wondered, ‘Who did this to me?'"

When a reporter asked whether the episode said anything about Christie's leadership style, Paul took a pass.

"Other people have to judge that," he said.

 

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