Rachel Maddow (Ali Goldstein/Associated Press)

Second in a series on the attempts of New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie to tar MSNBC over its coverage of the bridge scandal. Here is the first.

After MSNBC’s Steve Kornacki on Saturday unveiled a brand-new scoop alleging that the administration of New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie had held Sandy relief funds for Hoboken hostage to movement on a development deal, the Christie camp roared back. It issued a large statement denouncing MSNBC as a “partisan network” and abhorring its coverage.

Part of the pushback hammered MSNBC’s Lawrence O’Donnell for writing up a fake attack ad against the governor. Meh.

Another part of the counteroffensive centered on prime-time host Rachel Maddow, who has devoted a great deal of time to the bridge. Here’s how the statement from spokesman Colin Reed articulated the governor’s problem with Maddow:

Rachel Maddow Offered A Purely Speculative Theory That Bridge Closings Were Tied To Supreme Court Nominees, Which Was Then Promoted By MSNBC For Days. “Chris Christie just flipped out. He had enough. He pulled that justice off the Supreme Court rather than submit her to renomination before the Senate Democrats…That was an angry Chris Christie. So angry that he was doing something almost unprecedented in New Jersey…That was an angry Chris Christie, furious at Senate Democrats at a hastily called press conference that took place late in the day on Tuesday, August 12, 2013, late in the day. The Governor blows up at Senate Democrats. Yanks the judgeship of a Supreme Court Justice and calls the Senate Democrats animals…It is the next morning at 7:34 in the morning on August 13 that his Deputy Chief of staff gives the go ahead to the Port Authority.” (MSNBC’s “Rachel Maddow Show,” 1/9/14)

That is correct: On her Jan. 9 program, Maddow constructed a theory as to why Christie’s aides in August 2013 would have come up with this crazy idea of cutting off Fort Lee access lanes to the George Washington Bridge. One theory in circulation at the time was that the governor’s people were taking a retributive step against Fort Lee Mayor Mark Sokolich, who did not endorse Christie in his reelection campaign. Skepticism about such a motivation spilled off the Maddow set, in part because taking actions against disloyal Democrats would have been too much work. Maddow: “If every one of those non-endorsements from Democratic non-endorsers of Chris Christie all over the state had warranted the kind of revenge attack that was unleashed on Fort Lee for a solid week back in September, you know what, the whole state of New Jersey would still be a smoking hulk of wreckage today.”

So Maddow tried an alternative explanation focusing on Christie’s long-running fight with Democrats in the state senate over judicial nominations. It has been a nasty fight, and one that had Christie blowing his top at an Aug. 12, 2013 appearance. The next morning, Bridget Kelly, his deputy chief of staff, sent the famous e-mail pushing for traffic problems for Fort Lee. Here’s how Maddow broke it all down:

Tuesday, August 12th, 2013, late in the day, the governor blows up at Senate Democrats. Yanks the judgeship of a Supreme Court justice and calls the Senate Democrats “animals.”…Late in the day, August 12th, and it is the next morning at 7:34 in the morning on August 13th that his deputy chief of staff gives the go- ahead to the Port Authority. “Time for some traffic problems in Fort Lee.”

Go to the list of legislative districts for the state of New Jersey. Find Fort Lee. Fort Lee, New Jersey, legislative district 37. Who represents district 37? They have two members of the state assembly, and the leader of the Senate Democrats. Leader of the Senate Democrats represents Fort Lee.
Roughly 12 hours after Governor Christie blows up at the Senate Democrats and torpedoes the career of a Supreme Court justice who he likes because he says the Senate Democrats are animals and not going to let the justice loose to those animals. The leader of those animals in the Senate sees her district, sees her district get the order of destruction from Governor Christie`s deputy chief of staff. Or maybe it was about that endorsement. Until someone who knows the actual truth about this speaks, it remains a wide open question, and may be the key to this whole story.

After unspooling her notions, Maddow spoke with that leader of the senate Democrats — state Sen. Loretta Weinberg. When asked to advance Maddow’s theory, Weinberg declined: “You know, it seems to me that the governor has created a culture here, a culture that somehow made many of the people who work for him think this kind of behavior is appropriate. I can’t get into his heart and mind and know exactly what it is that provoked this.”

MSNBC’s Kornacki later uncorked another alternative theory, this one focusing on the possibility that the closures were related to a development project in Fort Lee.

Both theories are “purely speculative,” to borrow the Christie camp’s phrasing. They may not hold up. This is punditry, the pursuit of connecting political actions to political motives. It’s not the greatest strain of journalism; advancing a theory here or there will certainly score no major awards for the theorists. At the same time, however, it is perfectly fair game. Maddow took widely reported incidents in the Garden State and amassed them to account for something that hadn’t been accounted for. She was attempting to fill a vacuum left behind by the governor himself. In his Jan. 9, press conference, after all, Christie said the following, among many, many other things:

Q: So you still don’t know what prompted an apparent vendetta? OK.

GOV. CHRISTIE: I don’t — I don’t. And again, I don’t know whether this was a traffic study that then morphed into a political vendetta or a political vendetta that morphed into a traffic study. I mean, I’ve seen, in front of the legislature statistics and other things about the traffic study, so I know there’s information there. I don’t know what it is, and so we’ll find out over time maybe, but that’s really in the minds of the people who were doing it, and that’s what I based my decisions on at the time, was the testimony that people gave.

 

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Erik Wemple writes the Erik Wemple blog, where he reports and opines on media organizations of all sorts.