Spilling the beans on New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie’s GW Bridge scandal, 51-year-old former Port Authority appointee David Wildstein, through his attorney Alan Zegas, said Christie knew about the lane closings as they happened, something he denied at a 111-minue press conference Jan. 9. Wildstein’s the only one of the so-called “Bridgegate” players to go public with anything related to the scandal, facing an avalanche of subpoenas from a New Jersey state investigative committee led by Rep. John Wisniewski. When Wisniewski asked Wildstein under oath to talk Jan. 9, Zegas told him to take the Fifth. Christie’s denials, but more importantly, criminal accusations against Wildstein and his 41-year-old Deputy Chief of Staff Bridget Anne Kelly, won’t hold up when more testimony comes out. Wildstein said Christie displayed “inaccuracy” in his Jan. 9 press conference.
When you consider the tight ship Christie runs in the governor’s office, insisting he was “blindsided” by rogue staff makes no sense. No political appointee or key member of his staff would stab him in the back, as Christie contends. Suggesting that Kelly or Wildstein went rogue lacks plausible deniability. Punishing Fort Lee Mayor Mark Sokolich for not supporting Christie’s reelection bid isn’t Kelly, Wildstein or Sokolich’s ax to grind. While Wisniewski or New Jersey’s U.S. Attorney Paul Fishman have not yet reported on their subpoenas, the most egregious firing was Christie’s former campaign manager Bill Stepien. Slated to head the New Jersey Republican Party, Stepien was terminated Jan. 9 for negative public remarks against Sokolich. Why anyone would think that Stepien was anything but a loyal Christie follower defies comprehension? His firing raises eyebrows.
Going public with a letter refuting Christie’s story opens up a can of worms. “It’s the first time a high-level official has contradicted the governor,” said Princeton University history professor Julian Zelizer, specializing in presidential politics. Before the New York Times broke the scandal with private emails Jan. 8, Christie was considered a GOP presidential frontrunner for 2016. While Zegas’ letter is not a “smoking gun,” it disputes Christie’s version of events. “Mr. Wildstein contests the accuracy of various statements that the governor made about him and he can prove the inaccuracy of some,” said Zegas’ letter. Reacting to Zegas’ letter, Christie’s office issued more denials. Christie’s office insists that the letter proves that Christie had no prior knowledge of the GW Bridge lane closures, nuancing the statement without actually denying that he gave the order to punish Sokolich.
When Christie or his office insists Vegas’ letter “confirms that the governor has said all along—he had absolutely no prior knowledge of the lane closures before they occurred,” Christie isn’t denying he gave the order to close the lanes to punish Sokolich. Saying he had “no prior knowledge of the lane closures” only means he’d didn’t know when the lanes were actually closed. Giving an order to punish Sokolich or close the lanes isn’t inconsistent with not knowing exactly when the lanes were closed. Since Wildstein’s public disagreement, the New Jersey Star-Ledger which endorsed Christie’s 2013 reelection bid, signaled that if the New York Times allegations prove true, the governor must resign or face impeachment. “Because it will show that everything he said at his famous two-hour press conference was a lie,” said the editorial. No one’s heard a peep from Kelly.
No one involved in the “Bridgegate” scandal has talked other than Christie and Wildstein. When you pay close attention to Christie’s exact words, he’s denying knowing precisely when the bridge lane closing occurred but not denying that he gave the order to close the lanes. “He’s repeatedly said that he had no knowledge of the lane closures,” said Mo Elleithee, spokesman for the Democratic National Committee. “Today’s revelations raise serious questions about whether that is true,” referring to the Zegas letter. Without the Zegas letter, there are real questions why one of Christie’s closest advisors, Bill Stepien, was asked to leave for making publicly crude remarks about Sokolich. Firing Stepien doesn’t undo the fact that Sokolich was on the outs with the Christie campaign. Keeping Stepien would have more closely linked the GW lane closings to Christie.
Christie’s recent denials stick to the same technical script about not having any prior knowledge of the lane closings, without admitting or denying he gave Kelly and Wildstein the green light to punish Sokolich. “If we assume it’s true, then we’re in the realm of an outright lie the part of the governor, and that changes the entire story,” said New Jersey pollster David Redlawsk. “It’s the cover-up that gets you,” Redlawsk said, not paying attention to Christie’s concerted attempt to silence all principles involved in the GW Bridge lane closings. Saying, like “Hogan’s Heroes” old Sergeant Schultz, “I know nothing,” he didn’t know about the lane closings before they surfaced on the news, doesn’t deny that he ordered the lane closings. Like former President Bill Clinton with Monica Lewinsky, Christie shows uncanny technical skill to parse words, remaining legally correct but factually untrue.
About the Author
John M. Curtis writes politically neutral commentary analyzing spin in national and global news. He’s editor of OnlineColumnist.com and author of Dodging The Bullet and Operation Charisma.