What Christie knew, and when he knew it

The Bridgegate scandal is in a weird holding pattern, as the media absolutely refuses to let it go, perhaps dismayed by a round of early polling that showed New Jersey voters more or less willing to accept Governor Chris Christie’s account of the mess and his corrective actions.  That’s simply not an acceptable ending, so the press labored mightily to keep the story bubbling until they could drag it back into the headlines.  It’s an interesting inversion of the Obama scandal template, in which every story is allowed to decay behind a wall of indifferent coverage until it can be declared “old news” and buried in an unmarked grave.  One of the major Obama scandal narratives, appearing no more than two days after the story breaks, is “Are Republicans in danger of overreaching and generating sympathy for the President by talking about this story?”  I can’t remember seeing any mainstream media pundit asking that about Bridgegate.

So as Bridgegate was in danger of fading out completely, the New York Times dropped a bombshell story that declared key scandal figure David Wildstein, formerly of the Port Authority, “says he has evidence to prove the New Jersey governor knew about the lane closings on the George Washington bridge” on Friday.  Howls of GAME OVER! rang through mediaspace.  But later, the Times story was stealth-edited to say Wildstein (or more precisely, his lawyer) merely claimed such evidence existed, not that he had it.  Oh, well, then.  As long as the story stays alive, the more sensational claims can always be changed without attribution later.

As documented at Politico, Governor Christie was not amused by either Wildstein’s claims, or the instant credibility the New York Times awarded them:

New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, after a low-key initial response to Friday’s explosive allegations about his involvement in a bridge-closing scandal, mounted an aggressive defense late Saturday afternoon, attacking The New York Times and a former political ally in an email to friends and allies obtained by POLITICO.

“Bottom line — David Wildstein will do and say anything to save David Wildstein,” the email from the governor’s office says, referring to the former appointee who reignited the controversy.

The boom does indeed get lowered on Wildstein, after Christie takes a moment to criticize the Times for “sloppy reporting.”

The email from the governor’s office again distances Christie from Wildstein’s actions: “As he has said repeatedly, Governor Christie had no involvement, knowledge or understanding of the real motives behind David Wildstein’s scheme to close lanes on the George Washington Bridge. … The Governor first learned lanes at the George Washington Bridge were even closed from press accounts after the fact. Even then he was under the belief it was a traffic study. He first learned David Wildstein and Bridget Kelly closed lanes for political purposes when it was reported on January 8th.”

Then, it gets personal. “In David Wildstein’s past, people and newspaper accounts have described him as ‘tumultuous’ and someone who ‘made moves that were not productive,’” the email continues. “David Wildstein has been publicly asking for immunity since the beginning, been held in contempt by the New Jersey legislature for refusing to testify, failed to provide this so-called ‘evidence’ when he was first subpoenaed by the NJ Legislature and is looking for the Port Authority to pay his legal bills.”

The email dips far back into Wildstein’s past to buttress its portrayal of him, even alleging that “He was publicly accused by his high school social studies teacher of deceptive behavior.”

Wildstein is still routinely described in mainstream media reports, including the Times story, as an old high-school chum of Christie’s, while the Governor maintains they were classmates who didn’t know each other terribly well, and didn’t stay in close touch over the years.  The harsh current portrayal of Wildstein leads Christie critics to wonder why the governor would put such a scalawag in a top job at the Port Authority; the governor’s office says, in essence, that they didn’t know what kind of person he really was until he got involved in closing those bridge lanes as an act of political revenge.  Christie’s account of their relationship is hardly implausible; people get into government office based on a good resume and tenuous connections all the time.

Wildstein took the Fifth when grilled by a state panel on the bridge closings, after which his lawyer said he’d be willing to talk if granted immunity.  That’s exactly what happened with IRS scandal maven Lois Lerner, but the media didn’t seem to think it was all that remarkable in her case.  Skeptics of Wildstein’s claims naturally suspect he’s grabbing headline space to sweeten that immunity deal, and point to the media’s natural political and soap-opera interests in playing up the drama between he and his former boss.  Personal conflicts always add spice to a story.

Unexpectedly stepping up to bat for Christie is the top Democrat on the George Washington Bridge closing probe, as reported by Reuters:

A New Jersey Democrat leading a probe of the bridge traffic scandal that has engulfed Governor Chris Christie said on Sunday he has seen no evidence to support claims that the governor had been aware of the apparently politically motivated traffic jams as they happened.

The remarks by Assemblyman John Wisniewski, who co-leads the probe, came two days after a former Christie appointee at the agency overseeing the bridge who personally oversaw the lane closures said “evidence exists” that Christie had knowledge of the blockage when it happened.

If such evidence does exist, a state panel investigating the closures has not yet seen it, Wisniewski said.

But the same article notes that Governor Christie’s Director of Intergovernmental Affairs resigned on Sunday, and although she says she’s been thinking about leaving ever since the Governor was re-elected, she’s got a Bridgegate subpoena on her desk, as do a number of other top officials in the Christie administration, so the merry-go-round of the story keeps turning.

The way this has been playing out should answer any lingering questions about why President Obama never, ever fires anybody, no matter how badly his Administration screws up – not even when it seems as though the public would applaud his leadership in removing incompetents and malefactors from the federal government.  As soon as someone loses their job, the story becomes a Big Effing Deal (to borrow a famous Joe Biden phrase) with blood in the water.  Losing their jobs tends to loosen the tongues of loyal underlings.  Personal drama humanizes the story – what could be juicier than Governor Christie’s office bullet-pointing local school board election complaints from the 16-year-old David Wildstein to illustrate how “tumultuous” he is?

“Every time the scandal begins to recede, a new development thrusts it back into the spotlight,” intones CBS News, whose “new development” is that today was the deadline for some document subpoenas.  How many such deadlines have come and gone for hundreds of document requests ignored by the Obama Administration, without a word of mainstream media commentary?  A lot depends on who runs that spotlight, and where they choose to point it.