Contrary to initial press reports, ex-Port Authority executive David Wildstein did not claim that New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie knew beforehand about the lane closings at the George Washington Bridge, or the reason for the closures. In a letter released Friday, Wildstein’s lawyer contends that Christie learned about the lane closures while they were underway, not after, as Christie claimed at one point in his Jan. 9 news conference. (“I had no knowledge of this — of the planning, the execution or anything about it — and that I first found out about it after it was over. And even then, what I was told was that it was a traffic study.”) Wildstein’s lawyer said his client has evidence for his claim but didn’t say what it was. Wildstein is currently in a battle to stave off prosecution and to get the state to pay for his legal fees.
The Christie team responded Friday evening by pointing out Wildstein didn’t assert Christie knew in advance about the closing. (“Mr. Wildstein’s lawyer confirms what the governor has said all along: He had absolutely no prior knowledge of the lane closures before they happened and whatever Mr. Wildstein’s motivations were for closing them to begin with.”) It then carefully asserted, “As the governor said in a December 13th press conference, he only first learned lanes were closed when it was reported by the press and, as he said in his January 9th press conference, had no indication that this was anything other than a traffic study until he read otherwise the morning of January 8th.”
Christie’s team on Friday followed up with other statements from the Dec. 13 and Jan. 9 press conferences and from subsequent statements, saying that Christie found out from press reports (arguably during the closures). On Saturday afternoon, Christie’s team shoved back harder, sending a press memo entitled, “5 Things You Should Know About the Bombshell That’s Not A Bombshell,” including a remarkable statement by the New York Times that it had changed its initial lede and there would be “dozens” more changes. Christie reiterated his claim that he knew about the closures only after the incident, when the press reported on them. He slammed Wildstein, calling attention to Wildstein’s campaign for immunity and for payment of his legal fees. If Friday night was a 5 on the Christie press Richter scale, then Saturday was a 9.
To sum up, an aggrieved ex-employee facing criminal prosecution claims there is some nonspecific piece of evidence that shows Christie knew about the closures as they were underway and, in any case, doesn’t contradict Christie’s statements that he first learned about the bridge traffic closure from the media. Got it? Pretty thin gruel indeed.
This is the dilemma that Christie now faces: A suspect accuser, with no or flimsy evidence, says that something Christie said at one time wasn’t exactly right, even if the accuser’s recollection lines up precisely with other Christie comments. The media runs with the first accusation, grudgingly shifting the story over time but never eradicating the impression there is much more to this than Christie claims. Hoboken Mayor Dawn Zimmer’s and then Wildstein’s accusations and the media reports thereof now bedevil the governor, as it will when other accusers step forward. There will be some who say it all smells fishy and goodness knows what is out there. Others will smell a media and Democratic (I repeat myself) gotcha game.
Christie’s viability as a presidential contender, as it has from the beginning, will depend on what comes out in the investigation, including whether he was honest in that January news conference about no prior knowledge of the lane closures. It will also depend on whether the swirl of controversy subsides, allowing him to govern. At this point, I honestly don’t know which way it will turn out. But as I’ve said from the beginning, if Christie had knowledge before the incident — which no one to date has quibbled with — and lied about it in that press conference, he certainly can forget about the presidency.
To other mainstream top-tier contenders in 2016, I would say the following: Bide your time. Be open to the possibility the race may be wide open. Do what you would need to do if you were entering the race, and don’t base your decision on whether Christie will be in or out. Regardless of what happens to him, each contender will have to decide whether he has the fire in the belly and the case for his own presidency. But above all, prepare yourself, get up to speed on foreign policy issues, have your staff vet you and show voters and donors you have something to say.
And to GOP voters I would say: Welcome once again to the MSM. Perceiving Christie, rightly or wrongly, as the GOP’s best candidate to beat Hillary Clinton, it will go after Christie with a vengeance, creating the smoke for the aphorism “where there is smoke. . .” It will, as it initially did on Friday night, incorrectly report accusations, maybe correcting later but in any event asserting that Christie’s words are now “contradicted.” It’s not honest or fair, but neither is politics. If a candidate is truly damaged, move on. If this is a fleeting media frenzy that amounts to nothing, don’t let the press decide your nominee. In the meantime, remember that as in war (and isn’t this a war against Christie?) all initial reports are invariably wrong.
Once again, the key for pundits and voters should be to see how it all turns out. That is unsatisfying in a world of instant analysis and definitive punditry. But it is honest. Only time will tell when Christie’s future presidential prospects reach a tipping point (for the worse).