TPM Cafe: Opinion

Well, That Escalated Quickly

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AP Photo / Mel Evans

It is hard for me to believe that the governor of an American state could author such a piece of risible juvenilia, except it is even harder for me to believe a paid communications professional could have been behind this. The “argument” Christie (or possibly one very very close longtime advisor) is making here is that David Wildstein is a bad guy.

Why?

Because as a “a 16-year-old kid” he filed a lawsuit over a school board election and was “publicly accused by his high school social studies teacher of deceptive behavior.” Because he was, according to Christie, a “tumultuous” person (not the correct usage of that word, Governor, but whatever). Because he was “a political animal” who had “a controversial tenure” as the mayor of Livingston. Because he “made moves that were not productive.”

In some ways, I like David Wildstein more after reading some of this. I wish I’d thought of suing over a school board election when I was 16. I’m sure I engaged in deceptive behavior in high school. And earlier this week I, too, “made moves that were not productive.” Moreover, I will make more unproductive moves next week and I might even be making an unproductive move at this very moment.

Obviously it is hard for me to take some of these criticisms seriously. They are so flailing and weak that I can’t believe a journalist could claim Christie is “mount[ing] an aggressive defense.” And they don’t even seem to be true based on the article that Christie cites in his own email! Still, that’s why you leak this to Politico rather than a home-state media outlet in the first place.

But let’s forget about the press statement for a minute. After all, it’s intended to be a distraction and a sideshow.

Here’s how I look at this story right now:

It is utterly irrelevant if Chris Christie ‘wins the day’ or the weekend or the next 5 minutes or the next week. Irrelevant.

The bottom line is that he is in serious trouble, politically and legally.

On the legal front, the U.S. Attorney for New Jersey is probing allegations by the mayor of Hoboken that a member of Christie’s cabinet and the lieutenant governor linked federal Hurricane Sandy relief funds to the the mayor’s support for a redevelopment project in Hoboken that would exclusively benefit one of Christie’s closest allies – whom he appointed to chair the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey. This morning on his MSNBC show Steve Kornacki discussed reporting he and I (and producer Jack Bohrer) did showing that those federal Hurricane Sandy funds have not been monitored by the Christie Administration as required by a law that Christie himself signed last March. Furthermore, relief funds have been extremely hard to account for because Christie vetoed a bill that would have created a single website to track Sandy funding and contract information. Based on the reactions of two congressmen who watched the report with me, officials in Washington will be loath to trust Christie with the next round of federal funds and we should not be surprised if an investigation is on the horizon.

On the home-state political front, Christie is facing a Monday Feb. 3 deadline when subpoenas issued to members of his senior staff and campaign are due to be answered in Trenton as a part of the New Jersey legislature’s investigation into lane closures on the George Washington Bridge last September.

Those lane closures were how this entire story began for me. Three weeks ago I found evidence that a billion dollar redevelopment project in Fort Lee might have been targeted by those lane closures. The reason I had looked for that evidence was because, after watching Chris Christie’s marathon press conference, I thought his story didn’t add up. There were many many words spoken over a very long time, but when aggregated into sentences and paragraphs, none of it made sense logically. And the idea that David Wildstein and Bill Baroni coordinated with Christie’s staff and campaign manager to re-allocate lanes on the George Washington Bridge to punish a mayor for not endorsing the governor seemed like disproportionate punishment. There had to be something else going on.

We don’t yet know why those lanes were closed, but on Friday we were reminded that there are people out there who do. One of them may be David Wildstein. And through his lawyer, Wildstein telegraphed that “evidence exists” showing that Christie’s statements on Jan. 9 were false.

The letter was news. Perhaps the New York Times’ headline was too bold. But so what! David Wildstein has already produced evidence showing that the order to close the lanes came from the governor’s office, and that even junior staff in that office were aware that an operation was being run in Fort Lee. We know that Wildstein, Baroni, and Samson were with Christie that week. We know that Bill Stepien, the governor’s re-election campaign manager and onetime deputy chief-of-staff, was aware of the operation and may know the true motive (“win some, lose some,” he said afterward in an email).

In his office’s statement from last night and his subsequent email tonight, Governor Christie alleges that the lane closures were David Wildstein’s idea – tonight he called them “David Wildstein’s scheme.”

That may be true. Perhaps David Wildstein is the guy who came up with the idea of closing lanes one day and then filed it away as an off-the-shelf plan to execute if and when necessary to accomplish a political end.

Yet there’s a reason David Wildstein is seeking legal immunity and reimbursement for his legal bills: the order to close those lanes – the motive – seems to have come from Trenton.

And here we get to the heart of the matter. David Wildstein was put in the Port Authority by Chris Christie, in a job Christie invented, to be the governor’s eyes and ears – his enforcer. Wildstein was put at the Port so Christie could more effectively use the Port as an extension of his political operation (as Steve and I are documenting, more and more, with each passing week).

So spare us the shock that Wildstein is “a political animal.” Christie knew who Wildstein was before he appointed him to this job. There is no sense in distancing yourself from one of your own appointees who was given a job specifically because his skills matched what you were looking to accomplish with that appointment.

And finally, let me point something out: Christie goes out of his way to knock David Wildstein for being “an anonymous blogger known as Wally Edge.”

I worked for Wally Edge. I discussed it yesterday morning on MSNBC.

I enjoyed working for him. He was a fiercely loyal editor and advocate, and a very skilled observer of all things political. It is true I did not know at the time that Wally Edge was David Wildstein, but I took the job as a professional journalist, with a sense of the ethical obligations I had to sources and readers. It was better for me not to know Wally’s true identity so I would not have to lie to sources when they asked if I knew. And at some point the question just wasn’t very interesting anymore. He knew things. He had good sources. He was at least as fair as most other editors I’d worked with. He pushed back against people who gave me a hard time. He put me in a job where I was a daily reporter in one of the most politically cutthroat states in the federal union, and he helped me make it my own while I was there. And he never lied to me. So, yes, I liked Wally Edge. And it’s disappointing to me that we are where we are today.

But you know who else liked Wally Edge back then?

Chris Christie. The same man who earlier today denounced Wildstein for being an “anonymous blogger.”

I don’t have my email records from 2002, but if I did I am sure I could produce emails to and from the U.S. Attorney’s office. Almost everyone leaks in political reporting, but some of my biggest scoops came from leaks from Christie’s office, either to Wally or to both of us.

And Chris Christie loved the product of our work. When I covered the Newark mayoral race in 2002 I spent part of the day looking at polling sites where Cory Booker supporters were being intimidated or harassed. From the back of an SUV I would type up a story with photos, file it over a dial-up connection, and wait 15 minutes until federal election monitors were dispatched to the site by Christie’s office, where Christie was readingPoliticsNJ.com himself and reloading the page every few minutes.

When Chris Christie gave a press conference that afternoon in the U.S. Attorney’s office in the federal building in Newark, he was holding a rolled up piece of paper in his hand as he stood at the lectern and took questions. The piece of paper was one of my stories. When I went to speak with him afterwards, he unfurled it and told me how much he loved the work I was doing.

I don’t know if Chris Christie knew the true identity of Wally Edge back then. But he certainly did by the time he appointed David Wildstein to the Port Authority. And by then he had to know that the coverage David (and I, and Steve, and our fellow alums) had given to his prosecutions had played at least a small part in helping him become governor.

There is a legal process going on that may result in indictments and a political process in motion that may well lead to an impeachment. The risk premium on a Christie candidacy for president just went through the roof. This has been a very very bad week for the governor.

It may be true that David Wildstein “will do and say anything to save David Wildstein.” But at this point the same can be said of Chris Christie.

It was probably a good idea for the governor to hire that white-collar criminal defense lawyer from Manhattan.

After all, we don’t know what was in the file boxes David Wildstein carried out of the Port Authority last year. He mentioned them in passing on Sept. 18, 2013 in an email to Bill Stepien.

Why do we know that?

Because it’s in the documents Wildstein provided to the legislature. Exhibit A. Page 642. An email sent at 5:30 a.m.

It seems safe to assume there’s more where that came from.

Brian Murphy (@burrite) is a former political reporter in New Jersey and now an assistant professor of history at Baruch College, where he studies political economy and the politics of banking and infrastructure in the early American republic. He worked for David Wildstein in 2002 as the managing editor of PoliticsNJ.com and is also a friend of Bill Baroni. Both men are intimately involved in the scandal. He has not spoken with either about the scandal. He has never met Wildstein in person, and has not seen Baroni since 2009.