In January 2006, we now know from a memo released Tuesday by the House Judiciary Committee, the name of Christopher J. Christie—then the U.S. Attorney for New Jersey and now the Republican nominee for governor—appeared on a list of potential targets for removal by the Bush Justice Department.
Eight months later, at the height of the mid-term election campaign, Christie’s office leaked word to the press that Senator Robert Menendez—who had been appointed to his post earlier that year and who was seeking a full term in November—was under investigation for directing federal money to a non-profit organization that leased office space in a building he owned.
It was a blockbuster revelation that initially threatened the viability of Menendez’s candidacy. And when the Justice Department fired a handful of U.S. attorneys that December, Christie was spared.
So, did Christie go after Menendez, a Democrat, to save his own hide—and to keep the job that he used masterfully to position himself for the gubernatorial campaign he is now pursuing?
Ever since that ’06 episode, there have certainly been suspicions.
It’s been known since the spring of 2007 that Christie’s name was on a different Justice Department list, one sent on November 1, 2006 to Kyle Sampson, who was then Alberto Gonzales’ chief of staff. Back in ’07, Christie said that he had only learned after the fact that his job was in jeopardy and insisted, “I still to this day don't know how I got taken off the list.”
That’s what you’d expect him to say, of course, no matter what the truth is. Almost certainly, no one will ever be able to prove otherwise. But there are some very good reasons to suspect—strongly—that Christie’s pursuit of Menendez had everything to do with convincing the White House that he was a team player.
Like the fact that he leaked it before he had anything solid against Menendez. Typically, the press would get a heads-up only when a case had been assembled and it was time to collect the bad guy for his perp walk. But there was no case against Menendez when the investigation leaked—nor, for all his efforts, was Christie ever able to build one. All he succeeded doing was soiling Menendez’s name in the public arena, weeks before the most important election of his life.
This was another break from tradition for Christie, who successfully prosecuted more than 130 crooked political figures in his seven years on the job. Typically, major announcements of new cases and arrests weren’t made right before an election—lest there be any suspicion that a U.S. attorney who won his job by raising oodles of cash for George W. Bush had campaign politics on his mind.
An exception to this rule came in April 2002, when Christie ordered a raid of the office of James Treffinger, the front-runner for that year’s G.O.P. Senate nomination, weeks before the primary. But this only reinforces the oddity of the Menendez probe: Christie had the goods on Treffinger; the investigation had been years in the making and Christie had inherited it. The Menendez investigation, such as it was, had just begun when word of it leaked.
Now, consider the pressures that Christie may have been facing. It has since been established that in 2005 and 2006 the White House and Justice Department were actively exploring the possibility of firing U.S. attorneys who were not, as Sampson put it, “loyal Bushies.” Various lists were drawn up, and names were added and dropped.
For instance, David Iglesias, the U.S. Attorney for New Mexico, infuriated Republican Senator Pete Domenici, by refusing the bring corruption charges against New Mexico Democrats in the run-up to the 2006 elections. Days after his final phone conversation with Domenici, Iglesias’ name was added to the November 1 Justice Department’s hit list—and he was formally dismissed a month later.
Christie’s name, we now know, made its debut on a January 2006 list. What his offense was, no one seems to know. He had devoted his office to pursuing political corruption cases, something the White House strongly approved of, provided the culprits were from the other party. Christie snared more Democrats than Republicans, it’s true, but maybe the statistics were still too balanced for the White House’s tastes? Again, it’s a mystery.
But, try to put yourself in Christie’s shoes: He had strong political ambitions, and the U.S. attorney’s job had been a gold mine for him. His high-profile corruption busts had helped him build a sterling reputation—the kind that made him a natural candidate for statewide office. So he had strong incentive to hold on to his job: without it, he’d lose an invaluable P.R. machine.
And if Christie had an inkling that he’d be in trouble—maybe he heard about the January ’06 memo, maybe he just heard rumblings that “uncooperative” U.S. attorneys might face termination—going after Menendez would have been a very logical response.
After all, the G.O.P. was clinging to its Senate majority in ’06, and Menendez, appointed to the Senate by Governor Jon Corzine in January ’06, was easily the most vulnerable Democratic incumbent in the nation. If Republicans could knock off Menendez, their majority would almost certainly be safe. And what better way to go after Menendez—whose ethical standing was already questionable to many voters because of his roots in the machine politics of Hudson County—than with charges of corruption from Mr. Clean, a.k.a. U.S. Attorney Christopher J. Christie?
It would certainly explain the odd nature of the Menendez investigation: a shoddy and hasty-seeming probe that was prematurely leaked to the press and that ultimately resulted in no prosecution. It’s as if the goal was to taint Menendez first, then hope that some kind of indictment could be cobbled together.
At first, it seemed to work, too. No Republican had won a Senate race in New Jersey since 1972, but when news of the probe leaked, Menendez fell behind the G.O.P. nominee, Tom Kean Jr., in the polls. So panicked were Democrats that they began talking about dumping Menendez for a last-minute replacement."
Of course, Kean’s surge proved short-lived. The lack of any new developments in the Menendez probe and that fall’s extraordinarily anti-Republican climate conspired to save Menendez, who comfortably on Election Day.
Still, it would have been impossible for the White House to conclude that Christie had been anything but a team player. His action had briefly put them in position to grab a Senate seat in a deeply blue state—a seat that, had they won it, would have preserved a Republican majority in the Senate.
Christie would deny all of this. And there will probably never be a way to prove him wrong. But the circumstantial case is rather compelling, and the proof is in the pudding: Christie got to keep his job, rack up two more years of glowing headlines, and then cash it all in for a gubernatorial campaign—a campaign that, thanks in part to a series of investigations that were launched on his watch, he’s very likely to win.
It’s ironic. If Menendez had been running in just about any year expect ’06, the taint from Christie probe probably would have destroyed him. And if Christie weren’t running in ’09—with all of the Bush villains fading from voters’ minds and with New Jerseyans focused only on the awful economy and Corzine’s utter incompetence—his baseless, rotten-smelling investigation of Menendez might very well be enough to sink him.