Does Christie make a plausible victim?

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Chris Christie. (AP Photo/Mel Evans)
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A conversation with MSNBC host Steve Kornacki about what Chris Christie is facing, and how he's responding.

Josh: What's the significance of the merger of the Assembly and Senate investigative committees announced Tuesday?

Steve: On the surface, it's a logical move and it basically had to happen. The Christie administration's hope is to create as much chaos and make these hearings as circus-like as possible, maybe even to bog them down in court when people start getting double-subpoenaed. Plus, the Assembly committee is already just so much farther along -- they've met, they've sent out all those subpoenas, they've brought in Reid Schar. It's a pretty professional operation. Meanwhile, the Senate committee had yet to even meet.

That said, there's a long history of tensions between the chambers and these joint committees don't always work well -- generally with the Assembly side feeling they get big-footed and marginalized by the Senate members. 

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Josh: Do see any potential for conflicting agendas among the committee members, in terms of how aggressively they're going to go after Christie? (And does the presence of Schar make that question academic?)

Steve: Well, the other question that could make this academic is if the U.S. attorney is going to step in someday soon and basically say, 'Guys, I've got this.' And that could pretty much shut the whole thing down. But on the Senate side, you've got two Republican members -- Cardinale and O'Toole -- who actually come up in some of the subpoenaed emails that have already come out. Loretta Weinberg is clearly aggressive about this. But overall, when that list was released, a Democrat emailed me to say, "I don't see any Howard Bakers on there." 

Josh: So what are they looking for next? Thanks in large part to your interview with Dawn Zimmer, it seems like there's suddenly a lot more to investigate than there was even after the scale of Christie's aides' involvement in Bridgegate became clear. How broad is their mandate now?

Steve: It sounds like that's still up in the air. And the other question is, what if there's another Dawn Zimmer who comes forward? Another mayor or elected official making the same kind of allegation? Does it start to distract the committee from its focus? Do Republicans start digging in their heels and saying it's all just becoming one big venue for any Democrat with an axe to grind or a thirst for the spotlight to get their 15 minutes of fame? The broader this gets , if it gets broader at all, the more likely I think it becomes that the US attorney just steps in. 

Josh: What would it mean for Christie if that happened? I mean, maybe a measure of short-term relief from such partisan ax-grinding. But surely it's never a good thing to have the US attorney plunge in, is it? And wouldn't Christie of all people know that? 

Steve: I thought the funniest moment of the swearing-in this week was right after his speech, when Christie worked his way down the line of ex-governors on stage. And he came to Jim McGreevey, whose governorship was ruined in part by investigations from U.S. Attorney Chris Christie and the damning drip-drip of revelations they produced, who gave him a hug. One difference now, though, is that the current U.S. attorney, Paul Fishman, is basically the exact opposite of Christie when he was in the job. He's not angling to run for office and has shown little appetite for big, high-profile public corruption cases. If he takes this on, I expect there will be no leaks coming out of that office -- it will not be an investigation that plays out in public at all. So that part is good for Christie. It would turn the volume down, at least for a while.

But, obviously, if anything came of it, that would be moot. The other thing people wonder is, to what extent does the presence of Christie holdovers in Fishman's office affect the direction they go with this? I don't know have the answer and my knowledge of the inner-workings of federal prosecutors' offices is weak, but that's a question a lot of people in Trenton are asking.

Josh: So unless and until Fishman gets involved, there's pretty much no way for Christie to avoid some more big news cycles, is there? There's going to be the fruits of the latest round of legislative subpoenas and possibly some very not-private negotiations with Wildstein and maybe others over testimony-for-immunity. And that's assuming no other Dawn Zimmerman-type revelations . 

Steve: Yep, I think we're in a brief lull here, but February 3 is the deadline for the subpoenas that are out. Wildstein seemed to make a really strong opening bid for an immunity deal with his strategically redacted emails and texts. Let's see if someone tries to out-bid him. 

Josh: And in the meantime, I suppose, the governor's people continue to do damage-control by making the story about, as much as possible, partisan Democrats and the liberal media? (That stylishly written piece about your network in a major newspaper that failed to distinguish between dead-to-rights reporting and crowd-pleasing opinion would be an example of a narrative they'd like to encourage, I imagine.)

Steve: Ha, you said it, not me. They've also been pretty aggressive in trying to refute the idea that Hoboken lost out on Sandy money. It's actually a pretty complicated issue (they like to take credit for a lot of money that they didn't control), but it's ultimately beside the point. Whether you think Hoboken got a raw deal or got a good deal, Zimmer has been adamant that she wants more -- and her allegation is that two members of the administration told her she could get more by moving a redevelopment project forward. Whatever you make how much Sandy money Hoboken has actually seen, it doesn't affect her basic allegation.

Josh: Well it's the standard play, right? A lot of talking around the central allegations -- hence the focus on the fact that Dawn Zimmer used to say nice things about Christie and the relief money Hoboken got and the "gleeful" media -- without engaging with them, other than to issue a blanket denial. If they can't win an argument with her they can at least move as many people as possible to see what she's saying as tainted or irrelevant. (I kind of like how Amy Davidson put it: "Christie officials have now denied it, though the protestations have been flustered and, at times, demonstrably disingenuous and off point. They say they thought Zimmer loved them and that they know MSNBC hates them.")

From that perspective, is the attenuated timeline a good or bad thing for Christie? Is the lull you described earlier a PR opportunity or just a vacuum, to be filled by more bad news? 

Steve: The lull is probably too short to matter. We're talking about ten days here. I suspect they are pulling hard for the Fishman option -- having the US attorney step in and put this all behind closed doors. His poll numbers are taking an obvious hit, but ... I also wonder, especially given how the Christie camp is framing its defense, if he ends up with the exact opposite political problem he has now. What I mean is, if conservatives rally around him as a victim of the liberal media, maybe his marketability as a GOP primary candidate actually increases, just as his general election stock falls. 

Josh: Imagine? I don't suppose any would-be candidate, particularly a Republican one, could go wrong setting himself up as a defiant victim of Big Journalism. But I also would have thought Christie's great strength in the primary is electability -- he's the guy who can beat Hillary because he's Mr. Clean, the straight-talking conservative who conquered messy, liberal New Jersey. Isn't that what he's losing amid all this drip-drip-dripping?  I could pretty easily see how the rough media treatment Christie's now complaining about wins him Republican sympathy but ultimately loses him Republican votes.

Steve: Yeah, I was being a little flip with my last response. I think that's the more likely upshot if this worsens for him. He's a sympathetic figure to them -- but they'll find someone else to put up in '16. That goes doubly for the base within the GOP that he already has -- the big bucks Wall Street-types.