In January of 2014, revelations that political retribution may have been behind the closing of commuter lanes outside the George Washington Bridge two months before landed with a thud in Trenton. Suddenly, Gov. Chris Christie — having just won reelection by a wide margin, having been featured on the cover of Time magazine, and having been generally considered among Republican circles to be one of the party’s brightest stars– was forced under a cloud of suspicion.
A year and a handful of months later, Christie is still weathering the fallout that scandal brought with it. He’s faced scrutiny from the media and colleagues on both side of the aisle over his involvement in the lane closings, which he’s chalked up to the actions of a few rogue staffers. He’s seen his standing within his own party drop from celebrity status to struggling outlier, even if he’s been able to regain much of the ground he lost since the scandal first emerged. And he’s been forced to put off his much-anticipated presidential bid, some say, to wait for the controversy surrounding the incident to blow over — a delay motivated in part by the perception that it could be difficult to attract committed donors and supporters while still under the microscope.
But with news that a federal investigation into Bridgegate may be coming to a head, Christie could soon see that cloud break. The New York Times reported last week that indictments could be announced by U.S. Attorney Paul Fishman as early as this week, though sources within the legal community argue next week might be more likely. Either way, many insiders and operatives say a final development in the investigation could bring some real closure to a story that has dogged the Republican incumbent throughout his second term in office, and possibly pave the way for improved presidential prospects going forward.
The rationale for thinking that federal charges in the investigation, brought against some of Christie’s closest former aides, could potentially help absolve him of the scandal might be counter-intuitive, but many see it plainly. Granted the indictments name the players many have already faulted for the controversy, and so long as they don’t implicate Christie himself, the argument goes that he should be able to make the case he’s made since day one: that he had nothing to do with the situation.
“Look, I mean at some point there’s got to be some finality to this thing,” said one Republican political strategist who told PolitickerNJ that the development could mean good news for the governor. “I think everybody needs to turn the page and move on, whatever the hell it is.”
“But beyond that, unless one of them has something that explicitly shows that the governor ordered it and they’re going to roll, I don’t know what more the guy can do,” the source added.
Fellow Republicans point out that Christie has, after all, consistently denied involvement in whatever planning went into the lane closings, at least since a select investigative committee of the state legislature uncovered the “time for some traffic problems” email in January. He’s characterized those suspected of having orchestrated the closings — a small group of operatives and aides who once made up his inner circle — as liars and deceivers who mislead and betrayed him. And despite investigations by both lawmakers and Christie’s own lawyers, there’s been no evidence to show he had explicit knowledge of the incident as it happened, or that members of his staff were conspiring behind his back.
It’s a narrative that has infuriated Democrats, many of whom are convinced that, even if he didn’t play a part in the closures themselves, the failure of a state executive-turned-presidential hopeful to keep his staff under control is damning enough to warrant attack. Christie has used it to keep the scandal at arm’s length, going so far in some instances as to show remorse for the “trust” he put in the wrong people, and saying that if he could do one thing differently he would’ve been “more aggressive” in trying in get to the bottom of the allegations while they happened. But without evidence to the contrary, Republicans — both those sympathetic to the governor’s plight, as well as those who claim to be looking at the situation “matter-of-factly” — say you’ve got to take Christie at his word.
“Depending on what the indictments are, I think that determines where his future is,” another Republican strategist said. “If the indictment reveals what we already have heard, I don’t know where else you go. And sure, you can ask how did this happen under your watch and everything, but the facts are the facts. The political conversation is a different one.”
Surprise indictments could change all that, of course. While no one expects Christie himself to be hit with charges, there is wide consensus that if indictments do drop, they’d likely name those few senior staffers thought to be behind the scandal all along: including former Christie aide Bridget Kelly, former Port Authority official David Wildstein, and former Port Authority deputy director Bill Baroni. But many are also expecting former Port Authority executive David Samson to be named, pointing to his recent decision to step down from his longtime-post as co-founder of the politically-connected law firm Wolff Samson as a sign, and at least one source said Philip Kwon, formerly a top attorney at the Port Authority who helped prepare Baroni’s initial testimony in front of the Assembly Transportation Committee in December of 2013, could also be targeted.
Depending on what form those indictments take, Christie could either find himself finally able to move past the issue, or find himself further damaged by it, insiders and experts say. Indictments of Baroni, Kelly, and Wildstein, for example, would meet the expectations many people have of the investigation, allowing Christie to stand by his claims that the closings were orchestrated by a few mischievous staffers.
“If that’s the case, then I think he just says look, I said this all along that these guys lied to me, I wouldn’t have allowed this to happen if I knew about it, and I did what anybody does when they find out their employee did this: I fired them,” a source said.
But details showing Christie had more knowledge of the incident than he’s led on could potentially be harmful, and indictments of some of his closer confidantes — such as Samson, who served as counsel to Christie’s gubernatorial election campaign and later as chairman of Christie’s Transition Committee — would add to the atmosphere of controversy he’s already had to struggle through these last several months, observers add.
“Now, if one of them has something that goes directly to him and they roll, well, all bets are off. And then we’re having a different conversation,” the source said.
“You have to see what exactly they’re charge with. As of now we don’t know when or if these charges will be filed. But if they are, the closer the person charged to Christie, the more it hurts him,” added Ben Dworkin, director of the Rebovich Institute for New Jersey Politics at Rider University.
Still, in the context of Christie’s presidential ambitions, some argue that anything short of a direct indictment of the Republican himself would ultimately fail to have a real impact on his position. They note that many of Christie’s likely competitors — including Scott Walker, Jeb Bush, and Rick Perry, who’s under indictment in his home state of Texas — have or are still dealing with controversies of their own. It’s also unclear how much voters in other parts of the country would respond to Bridgegate as a political attack in a primary or general election — many contend that it’s a regional issue and one not likely to matter much to residents living outside the tri-state area.
“Unless it’s him, it’s really hard to say that it’s going to be devastating,” said Burlington County Republican Chairman Bill Layton. “I mean if you look at the other presidential candidates in the field, they’ve all had their fair share of scandals and other things. So unless it’s him directly doing it, it’s really hard to say what is the difference between Hillary Clinton deleting emails and some people that were rogue members of the governors staff. At the end of the day, everyone is based on their own actions and what they’ve done, not by the actions of others.”
What indictments in the investigation could do, others say, is close the door on a controversy that has kept Christie — but also, in some respects, lawmakers in Trenton — under a cloud these last few months.
“I think at this point, everybody involved would like to see some sort of closure to it,” said Assemblywoman Holly Schepisi (R-39). “If there are going to be indictments, there are indictments. But if that thorough of an investigation finds that there is nothing criminal that took place, we’ve got to respect that as well.”
A member of the Select Committee on Investigations that’s been conducting a Bridgegate inquiry parallel to Fishman’s own investigation, Schepisi said the issue has been taxing both for those directly involved but also for the legislature as a whole. The incident early on became something of a political football in Trenton, pitting Democrats and Republicans against one another and distracting them, Schepisi said, from addressing real concerns, like the state’s economy. And at the end of the day, their own investigation also failed to turn up evidence that Christie played any hand in the lane closures, though that inquiry is still ongoing as well.
“Being on the committee, having reviewed tens of thousands of pages of documents, there was absolutely nothing we were given that even remotely tied to the governor in any sort of fashion,” Schepisi said. “So if I had to speculate, I think he would be relieved if there was closure brought to the investigations one way or another, and feel so knowing that based upon the evidence provided, there was nothing to point to his involvement.”
Schepisi added that with “respect to the governor’s ambitions and next steps, I think any damage that the Democratic party could have wanted to inflict, they already have.”
“So I think in a lot of ways having closure on this matter just gives the governor the ability to move forward, wherever it ends up,” she said.
Democrats in legislature, of course, feel differently. Many argue that even if Christie himself is shown to have played no specific part in the scandal, it still took place under his watch, which at the very least paints a picture of a grossly incompetent leader who now happens to be gunning for the country’s top executive post. At worst, they argue that Christie — with his brashness and prizing of uncompromising loyalty among those he works with — created a culture in which such behavior was not only condoned, but encouraged.
Also, at least one major question mark still remains, according to Assemblyman Jon Wisniewski (D-19), who co-chairs the Select Committee on Investigations: “the fundamental question that the committee has been trying to get to and while continue to try and get to is who told Bridget Kelly to send that email, and what purpose did she seek to serve in sending it.”
“If you ask a governor of another state would it be possible for your deputy chief of staff to send something like that with no one above her having any knowledge, the answer is universally no,” Wisniewski said. “The reality is that every front office, Democrat or Republican, the people who work for the governor, make no mistake about it, are responsive to the governor. They do the governor’s will. And they don’t do it by divining it through tea leaves or looking at entrails in the bottom of a saucepan — somebody tells them. That’s how a governor’s office works, no matter who is governor.”
“I think he will have a lot of explaining to do, when something happens, whenever that might be,” he added.