When we last checked on the George Washington Bridge scandal, Chris Christie – and a gaggle of deep-pocketed Republican donors – were awaiting word from government sleuths about his culpability. Or lack thereof. Now we’re finally getting a wee bit of clarity. Sort of.
Which probably won’t ease the restiveness of the donors who are looking to bet early money on the most electable Republican in ’16. Christie’s nagging problem is that the cloud over his head continues to hover. Donors don’t want to risk throwing good money after bad, fearful that, at some unforseeable moment, the other shoe might drop.
Late last week, a legislative panel in Trenton essentially delivered a mixed verdict. The good news for Christie is that the panel – run by Democrats – found no “conclusive” evidence that he orchestrated the traffic gridlock. The bad news for Christie is that the panel blamed the gridlock on aides who felt “empowered” by Christie’s hardball ethos.
So, for now, all Christie gets is a half-empty glass. Key excerpts from the report: “At present, there is no conclusive evidence as to whether (he) was or was not aware of the lane closures either in advance of their implementation or contemporaneously as they were occurring. Nor is there conclusive evidence as to whether (he) did or did not have involvement in implementing or directing the lane closures.”
However, key Christie staffers and appointees demonstrably acted “with perceived impunity and in an environment, both in (his) office and the Port Authority, in which they felt empowered to act as they did, with little regard for public safety or the steadily mounting public frustrations.” Indeed, Christie’s people responded to the public safety fracas “very slowly and passively” despite “mounting indications that serious harms had been inflicted on thousands of New Jersey motorists for political rather than legitimate policy reasons.” (The apparent political reason was that Fort Lee’s mayor was refusing to support Christie’s re-election.)
Are big Republican donors – who are reportedly eager to coalesce early behind an establishment candidate such as Jeb Bush, Mitt Romney, or Christie – likely to feel satisfied that the big guy is now in the clear, not just legally but politically? I doubt it. Christie’s ’16 Republican rivals can easily cherry-pick the Trenton panel’s report to paint Christie as a guy who cultivated a vengeful office culture – and imagine what those rivals could do if Christie aides are indicted.
And that could still happen. We still haven’t heard from U. S. Attorney Paul Fishman, who has the clout to compel cooperation from key former Christie aides like Bridget Anne Kelly (author of the famous email, “Time for some traffic problems in Fort Lee”). The Trenton panel had no such clout, and had to write its report without insights from any of the top players. Fishman is the major league ump in this game.
In fact, a news report last weekend, attributed to “multiple sources familiar with the investigation,” said that at least half a dozen federal indictments could be handed down as early as January. It wasn’t clear whether all possible indictments are about Bridgegate – or Fishman’s other probe, which concerns allegations that the Christie team threatened to withhold Hurricane Sandy funds from the Hoboken mayor unless she agreed to cave on a Christie-favored real estate deal.
But unless or until there is more clarity on these multiple fronts – the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission and the Manhattan DA are also investigating possible securities law violations by the Christie team – the GOP’s presidential bankrollers aren’t likely to bet the house on Christie. The question is, how long will they be willing to wait for his cloud to dissipate?
Scandal story aside, I’ll stick with what I said here in September, that Christie’s biggest potential problem, in a Republican primary race, is his stewardsip of a sour state economy. His GOP rivals could easily cook up a TV ad like this: Under Chris Christie, New Jersey’s credit rating has been downgraded eight times – more than under any governor in the state’s history. (True.) Or they could pull conservatives away from Christie by running a TV ad like this: Under Chris Christie, New Jersey’s business tax ciimate is ranked 50th in the nation – the worst among all the states. (True.)
But at least one likely Republican rival is surely hoping against hope that Bridgegate plays big in ’16. Rest assured, Rick Perry doesn’t want to be the only indicted governor on the debate stage.
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