Friday, January 10, 2014

Stonewall bridge III: Rachel Maddow connects the dots

IF YOU planned to watch New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie’s mammoth press conference on Thursday — all 107 minutes of it — you’d have been well-advised to bring a lunch. And a violin. The reliably combative Republican governor and possible candidate for the presidency in 2016 went to great length to show the world a new, softer side of Chris Christie.

The governor under fire for his possible role in manufacturing a traffic crisis at the George Washington Bridge as a means of political retribution was “heartbroken,” he was “embarrassed,” he was “humiliated,” he was “disturbed,” he was “blindsided.” But as much as anything else, Christie was selective in what he said about the scandal that’s now engulfing his administration, and possibly scuttling whatever hopes he may have had for the White House in three years.

At the press conference Christie dutifully kicked certain people under the bus — specifically his deputy chief of staff, Bridget Anne Kelly (terminated “effective immediately”); and his former campaign manager, Bill Stepien, who was effectively excommunicated from any further role in Republican politics in New Jersey.

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But Christie also fell on his own sword: “I don't want any of you to confuse what I'm saying this morning. Ultimately I am responsible for what happens under my watch -- the good and the bad. And when mistakes are made, then I have to own up to them and take the action that I believe is necessary in order to remediate them.”

His willingness to accept responsibility for the debacle exploding around him may have repercussions he didn’t expect. New reporting on the scandal dubbed “Bridgegate” by MSNBC's Rachel Maddow, by New Jersey media (and soon enough by everyone else) threatens to unravel the narrative he’s desperately trying to construct.

On MSNBC on Thursday night, Maddow went to great lengths to historicize the origins of the scandal more completely than anyone else has to this point, building a provocative but logical case for the birth of Bridgegate going back further than anyone imagined.

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UP TO NOW, it’s been widely thought that overzealous operatives on Christie’s staff ginned up a massive traffic tie-up between Sept. 9 and Sept. 13 last year as retribution for the refusal of Mark Sokolich, the mayor of Fort Lee, N.J., to endorse Christie’s re-election bid for governor.

The traffic madness complicated life for drivers trying to get into Manhattan via the George Washington Bridge on any of three access lanes in Fort Lee, N.J. The lane closures backed traffic up onto Fort Lee's local roads, angered commuters, brought city services to a standstill, and possibly contributed to the death of an elderly woman whom EMS personnel couldn’t reach in time.

But Maddow, on her MSNBC program on Thursday night, reached back to explore a genesis for the scandal that extends well before September 2013, and involves someone other than the mayor of a small city outside Manhattan.

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Maddow reported that in May 2010, Christie decided not to reappoint state Supreme Court Justice John Wallace Jr. for another seven-year term, the first such action by a New Jersey governor since 1947. New Jersey Democrats were furious and exacted a measure of revenge by rejecting every Supreme Court nominee Christie put forward after Wallace’s ouster.

When state Supreme Court Justice Helen Hoens, a Republican, came up for reappointment last year, New Jersey Senate Democrats pledged to oppose her, so Christie took the unusual step of short-circuiting Hoens’ reappointment himself in August of last year. His chivalrous reason? “I simply could not be party to the destruction of Helen Hoens’s professional reputation,” he angrily said at a press conference on Aug. 12, 2013. “I was not going to let her loose to the animals.”

That press conference on Aug. 12, 2013, was about 12 hours before Bridget Anne Kelly, then Christie’s deputy chief of staff, sent an e-mail to David WIldstein, director of interstate capital projects for the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey:

“Time for some traffic problems in Fort Lee,” Kelly wrote from her Yahoo account at 7:34 a.m. on Aug. 13.

Why Fort Lee? The town that was victimized by Christie’s administration, if not the governor himself, is in Legislative District 37, which is represented by Loretta Weinberg. The leader of the New Jersey Senate Democrats.

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MADDOW’S REPORTING on the matter was as masterful and procedural a connection of fairly disparate dots as any journalist has done on the Bridgegate affair so far, and others will follow her lead. She proposed, however, that the four days of orchestrated traffic chaos were likely intended only as payback for Weinberg’s leadership of the Senate Democrats.

It’s entirely possible that it may not be an either/or scenario; there’s every reason to think that the Christie brain trust, mendacity in overdrive, may well have decided on a two-fer, a both/and scenario: punishing Weinberg for her role in scuttling Christie’s nominees, and taking Sokolich down a peg for daring to refuse to back Christie’s bid for a second term.

Either way, there are huge problems ahead for Christie. The Aug. 13 e-mail may be the worst of them.

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Setting aside all of Christie’s protestations of innocence, of embarrassment, of humiliation and all the rest, the resolution of Bridgegate rests on believability, and not Christie’s believability. In this, the Kelly e-mail speaks volumes.

Given Christie’s style of hands-on management, given his reputation for being in charge, it’s just not credible that the Aug. 13 e-mail from his deputy chief of staff — “Time for some traffic problems in Fort Lee” — was written on her own initiative, on her say-so alone, as if dawn rose over New Jersey that morning and Bridget Anne Kelly, having nothing better to do that day, decided all by her lonesome to endanger the lives of people and damage the commerce of industries making use of the busiest working bridge on this planet.

If you believe that, I’ve got a bridge — well ... never mind.

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JUST AS compelling is Wildstein’s response to Kelly’s e-mail, sent one minute later: “Got it.” That reply indicates an antecedent context to the whole conversation. They’ve clearly been talking about it before; the “got it” is acknowledgement of that which has been previously discussed — of an order ready to be implemented.

Another e-mail, from Wildstein to Kelly on Saturday, Sept. 7, two days before the mess began, is just as suggestive of an action plan. “I will call you Monday AM to let you know how Fort Lee goes.”

We know how Fort Lee went. We’ll learn more today, when more internal documents from Christie officials and others are due to be released. We’ll probably learn more in the coming days from Kelly herself; state Rep. John Wisniewski, who led New Jersey lawmakers in calling for subpoenaed correspondence in the Bridgegate case, told Maddow last night that Kelly would be subpoenaed, too.

We’ll learn more from Maddow, who’s promised to stay on the story (along with political reporters from everywhere). And we’ll hear more from Christie, whose public damage-control persona, no matter how slick and persuasive, will have to face a fact Wisniewski made clear Thursday night: “A public asset, a bridge, was used for political purposes. That’s against the law.”

Image credits: Christie: Tony Kurdzuk/The Star-Ledger. Maddow: MSNBC. Wallace: Robert Sciamino/The Star-Ledger. GWB lane closures: Jen Brown/The Star-Ledger.

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