Did Christie Play Politics With Probe? U.S. Attorney Docs Add To Questions

Those newly released documents from the U.S. attorney firings raise a few questions about the Republican who may be his party’s highest profile electoral contender this year.

That’s Chris Christie, the former U.S. attorney from New Jersey, who’s also leading incumbent Jon Corzine in that state’s race for governor.According to the documents, Christie’s name twice appeared on informal lists, compiled by DOJ staffers, of U.S. attorneys who might be canned.

The first appearance was in a lengthy memo written by Kyle Sampson, chief of staff to Alberto Gonzales, and sent to Harriet Miers on January 1, 2006. Sampson wrote in the memo, released yesterday, that he was responding to a request from Miers about whether President Bush could fire a large number of U.S. attorneys. Sampson argued that it would be preferable to fire only a “limited number,” and listed eight prime candidates, including three — Todd Graves, Margaret Chiara, and Bud Cummins — who did ultimately lose their jobs. Underneath these, Sampson listed some other potential choices, which he split into Tiers 1-3. In Tier 1 were five names, including Christie’s. (Only one of those five, Paul Charlton, was fired in the end.)

Ten months later, Michael Elston, another DOJ staffer, sent Sampson another list, titled “Other Possibilities.” Elston wrote: “These have been suggested to me by others,” before listing five names, including Christie’s. None of these prosecutors ended up getting fired.

In May 2007, Christie told the Washington Post, which reported on his inclusion on Elston’s list, that Elston had contacted him that March to inform him of his inclusion, and to apologize for it — an apology Christie said he refused to accept.

“I was completely shocked. No one had ever told me that my performance had been anything but good,” Christie told the Post. “I specifically asked him why he put my name on the list. He said he couldn’t give me an explanation.”

He added: “I still to this day don’t know how I got taken off the list.”

None of the available evidence answers that question (or explains how Christie got on those lists in the first place).

But it’s worth noting that in September of 2006 — by which time he almost certainly had a run for governor in mind — Christie did something that greatly pleased national Republicans: His office leaked word that it was aggressively investigating Rep. Bob Menendez — the New Jersey Democrat who at the time was in a tight race for the Senate — over a rental deal.

Publicly tarring Menendez was especially helpful to the GOP at the time. First, the Senate hung on a knife edge — a Menendez loss would, as it turned out, have allowed Republicans to hang onto the chamber. Second, Republicans that fall were fending off charges that they had presided over a “culture of corruption.” Any hint of evidence that the corruption problem was bipartisan could potentially be used by the GOP to change the prevailing narrative and impact races beyond New Jersey.

Neutral observers wondered at the time about Christie’s motives. “I think you really do have to question the timing, particularly the subpoena of Menendez’s tenants,” one expert told the New York Times shortly after the leak. “That strikes me as having very important political implications.”

And the fact that Menendez has never been charged in connection to the investigation only adds to the questions.

Intensifying those questions still further is the evidence in the newly released documents that Christie was building a rapport around that time, or soon after, with at least one extremely powerful Washington Republican: Karl Rove.

Rove said during his testimony before the congressional committee that, before Christie left the U.S. attorney’s office in late 2008, Christie “asked me questions about who — who were good people that knew about running for governor that he could talk to.”

Rove added:

I talked to him twice in the last couple of years, perhaps one time while I was at the White House and once or twice since I left the White House, but — not regarding his duties as U.S. Attorney, but regarding his interest in running for governor.

Rove left the White House in August 2007.

(Yesterday, Corzine’s camp sought to turn Rove’s testimony into a charge that Christie used the U.S. attorney’s office to plot his run for guv.)

Of course, the questions about whether Christie’s investigation of Menendez — or the leak of news about it — was politically motivated exist independent of the U.S. attorney firings. But it’s fair to ask: if Christie, a moderate Republican, had heard he was vulnerable to the Bush purge, might he not have been particularly motivated to prove his loyalty to the cause — especially since he was likely already mulling a run for governor, for which he would need the support of the GOP establishment?

Maybe a question for a New Jersey political reporter to pose?