Is there a way out for Chris Christie?
A conversation with MSNBC host Steve Kornacki about the widening "Bridgegate" scandal and its effect on New Jersey governor Chris Christie.
Josh: Friday's document dump, to say nothing of the reporting you and others are doing on the big-money development context to this scandal, fairly obliterated the idea that this story was somehow contained by Christie's very big press conference last week.
That performance became obsolete pretty quickly, didn't it?
Steve: I mean, Christie pinned the blame mainly on Bridget Kelly, the now ex-deputy chief of staff, and a little on Bill Stepien, his political lieutenant and former campaign manager (and would-have-been key player in a '16 Christie WH bid). And we already know about David Wildstein and Bill Baroni, his two Port Authority appointees who were already subpoenaed. That's the circle of potential trouble for Christie that existed after the first leak of documents. But the second release of documents expanded it significantly.
Now we can include David Samson, Christie's appointee as chairman of the Port Authority. Wildstein's records suggest there was a Christie/Samson meeting *before* the 8/13 "time for some traffic" email from Kelly. And Wildstein made clear that he was releasing only records that are relevant to the closures, so he's saying that apparent meeting was related to all of this.
Regeina Egea has been added to the mix. She was running the Authorities Unit—overseeing Christie's appointees at places like the Port Authority. Now we know that she was forwarded (priority: high) by Baroni that famous 9/13 memo from Pay Foye suggesting that the closures might violate state and federal law. She's high up in the governor's office. She's very close to Christie. She's currently his pick to become his next chief of staff. She was sent that email from Pat Foye four months ago. That raises a ton of questions.
Michael Drewniak, Christie's longtime spokesman, pops up. Wildstein's records show the two had dinner right around the time Wildstein announced his resignation. Charles McKenna, the chief counsel to Christie, comes up. So does Christina Renna, another official who deals with municipal officials. And if you subpoena the records of some or all of those people, how many more names of Christie people will you turn up?
Josh: So before we even get into the many substantive questions here about what happened, who was involved, and why they did it, a political one: Is there anything Christie could do at this point to get out ahead of the story, even if he were inclined to try? As you say, the story is very plainly so much bigger now than it was at that first post-emails press conference, when Christie said he'd been betrayed by a rogue aide and that to his (ostensibly very limited) knowledge all of his culpable Port appointees and staff members had been fired.
Steve: I really can't see how. I mean, whether he knew all along or just had a notion that something was funny, I strongly suspect the game plan here was to get to January 14. That was when the legislative session expires, when the Assembly panel's subpoena authority expires, and when the incoming speaker (a Democratic speaker, but a speaker who is the product of an alliance between Christie and Democratic power-brokers), was expected to refuse to extend the subpoena authority. Everything was on track for that to happen until last Wednesday morning. Now it's just moved into a place that Christie couldn't have anticipated, and I suspect he's losing control of it. I expect the subpoenas to start flying from that committee when it reconvenes next week, and with each new subpoena there's less that Christie can proactively do. Unless you include praying that nothing turns up in any of the new materials that directly implicates him.
Josh: It was really surprising to me to hear that there was a real possibility that the investigative process could have ended like that. I guess it's a testament to the power of the Democratic bosses, a number of whom have got a good thing going with Christie and don't particularly want to rock the boat, if they figured they could scuttle the investigation just as it was bound to be picking up steam.
But that's what the head of the investigating committee intimated to you might happen when you asked him about it on your show Saturday. And apparently the future of the legislative investigation remained a real question until that afternoon, when the incoming speaker finally issued a public statement that he would reauthorize the committee's subpoena power after all.
What do you think prompted him to make that commitment?
Steve: It was surprising—actually, kind of shocking—to me. But when I was calling around after the show on Saturday, I heard the same thing from other Dems: It really was up in the air whether Vincent Prieto, the incoming speaker, would extend the subpoena power. I don't know what changed, beyond common sense kicking in: Can you imagine the outrage from the Dem rank-and-file and from the press if the Assembly killed this investigation?
I guess maybe there's also the possibility that more powerful Dems (members of Congress? Bob Menendez? Dems in DC who want to see Christie squirm here?) caught wind of the possibility and applied pressure, and that that pressure meant something to Prieto and his backers. I mean, the thing is, so many of these pro-Christie Dems are indebted to him, both for things he's done and for things he hasn't done. I mean, when he was US Attorney, he declined an opportunity to prosecute George Norcross, the Democratic boss of South Jersey. And if you remember Christie as US Attorney, he never passed on a chance to go after any big-name Dem, and even plenty of Republicans. But Norcross got a pass. And Norcross is now probably his most important ally in the state—and the Norcross machine is represented by basically every Democratic legislator from south of 195. That's one example.
Josh: So where does the legislative investigation focus next, now that the circle of potential targets has been so dramatically widened? What other subpoenas do they issue? Who else do they want to hear testimony from? And is this all building toward a demand for testimony from Christie himself?
Steve: Bridget Kelly as far as I know is next on the list. But I assume they'll want records from all the others—Stepien, Egea, etc. And they'll probably call Baroni back to testify, this time under oath. If they all start taking the 5th, it obviously looks terrible for Christie, and also raises the pressure on the US Attorney to get involved. The one break Christie catches, as far as I know, is that his emails are protected, thanks (ironically enough) to a 2009 state Supreme Court ruling when Republicans were hoping to give Christie a campaign boost by forcing Jon Corzine to turn over his emails with Carla Katz, the public employee union leader he'd been romantically involved with.
Josh: What will the investigators be looking for next? Is it mostly a question of finding out how close Christie was to the ring of traffic saboteurs and their plot? Or is this also about continuing to try to find out more about motive—what the stakes were in all this and what the Christie staff and appointees were trying to accomplish, in transactional terms?
Steve: I mean, it's both, right? Those two things are almost certainly related. There's such disproportion here between the action that was taken, the people we so far know we're involved, and the impetus that's generally been assumed: a non-endorsement from a mayor of a mid-size community that is one of 566 in New Jersey. So most people are figuring the stakes had to be higher, and the higher they get, the more logical it is to assume Christie had some knowledge or role.
Josh: Right. So as of right now, how do you assess the seriousness of the political damage to Christie that's already been done? And at what point does this go from something that threatens his presidential changes to something that threatens his ability to remain in office as governor?
Steve: The damage to him is simultaneously scant and potentially fatal. Scant because the theater of his press conference was fine, so there are some Republicans nationally taking shots, but most seem to be giving him the benefit of the doubt and sound like they're ready to let it go. So at this exact moment, I don't think there's a ton of political damage that's been done. But at the same time, the wheels are now in motion on several potential fronts to explode this story in a way that is completely beyond Christie's control. The effect of this past week's revelations and what they're leading to will be felt weeks from now, and it could be really bad. And if there's anything that connects him directly, then both of those scenarios—losing '16 viability and losing the governorship—are in play.