For two hours last Wednesday, New Jersey governor Chris Christie took reporters’ questions about “Bridgegate” — in which Christie’s senior aides closed the George Washington Bridge to punish the mayor of Fort Lee, for not endorsing Christie’s re-election bid — but stopped short of really taking responsibility. He answered every question, but left the most disturbing questions unanswered.
Like a client well-coached by his lawyer, Christie stuck to his story. Unfortunately, that story amounted to variations on two repeated refrains: “I didn’t know,” and “I was lied to.”
“Bridgegate” seems to confirm the worst suspicions about Christie, and the Republican party that — until recently —had all but embraced him as its best hope for 2016. Christie’s press conference, and the GOP’s muddled response to the scandal, have done little to allay those concerns
Asked and Unanswered
The most troubling of the myriad unanswered questions is: How could Christie not have known? How did Christie remain oblivious for so long? Given his background as an aggressive criminal prosecutor, why didn’t he aggressively ask questions of his staff after the world’s busiest bridge was all but shut down for four days?
Christie’s staff may have protected him from any direct knowledge to give him plausible deniability. Coined by the CIA, the phrase refers to the practice of withholding information from senior officials, to protect them in the event that potentially illegal activity becomes public knowledge.
Christie may have acted to protect his own plausible deniability. He gathered his staff one hour before a press conference a month ago, and gave them one hour to come forward if they knew anything. After that hour Christie would tell the press that none of his staff was involved. Christie told his staff what he wanted to hear, and practically dared them to tell him otherwise. That isn’t exactly a “full briefing.”
Christie is still guarding his plausible deniability. He fired his Deputy Chief of Staff Bridget Kelly, who had been part of his administration from the start, and who initiated “Bridgegate.” Christie said that he has not spoken to Kelly since the emails came out, nor has he given her an opportunity to explain. Does Christie already know what Kelly’s explanation would be, or does he still not want to know?
Here’s another lingering question: Why would Christie’s closest staff, advisors, appointees — some of whom had worked with him for years — get such an idea? How did Christie’s office become so poisonous?
Here, the answer is simpler. A fish rots from the head down. In any organization, but especially a political organization, the leadership sets the tone for what’s acceptable and what’s not.
Christie says he did some “soul searching,” asking himself, “What did I do wrong to have these folks think it was OK to lie to me?” Christie asked the wrong question. A better question would be, “What did I do to make these people think that this was acceptable, or something that I would want them to do?”
“I am not a bully,” Christie said during his marathon press conference. It may go down as one of the most unfortunate political one-liners since “I am not a crook.” Christie admitted that he’s gotten into “heated discussions and arguments,” because of his “direct” and “blunt” personality, that people might characterize as bullying, “but it’s not that.”
Christie may have been referring to the numerous videos of him berating, belittling, and otherwise using the power of his office to intimidate or even silence those who disagreed with or questioned him.
A New York Magazine article revealed that many of these videos are recorded, edited, and uploaded to YouTube by Christie’s own office.
Last month, a New York Times article detailed examples of Christie using his office to retaliate against and intimidate both Democrats and Republicans who criticized or defied him. In one instance, Christie employed Bill Baroni — a former state senator, now one of Christie’s two Port Authority appointees embroiled in “Bridgegate” — to deliver an obscene note to a union representative who criticized Christie on a radio interview.
Not only did Christie use his office to intimidate, punish, or humiliate his perceived political enemies, but he seemed to enjoy and even celebrate it. His aides and advisers, naturally, followed his lead. The New York Times article described Christie’s staff celebrating a push to cut public employee benefits by uploading videos of Christie berating teachers at town hall meetings.
It’s clear from his own words, actions, and conduct, that Christie created a culture — a “bully culture” — that led some of his aides to think this was acceptable, and in keeping with the character of their administration. That culture is part of Christie’s record, and made it utterly believable that Christie’s office would retaliate against someone who did not do what he wanted.
A Celebrated Bully
The New York Magazine article describes conservatives sharing Christie’s videos “the way tween girls circulate Justin Bieber videos.” Ezra Klein writes that Christie emerged at a moment when Republicans were out of power, and needed to feel powerful. Videos of Chris Christie dressing down public employees and ordinary citizens who disagreed with his hard-core conservative agenda made them feel powerful.
Christie became a celebrity bully — at least among Republicans — due to his aggressive, belligerent style, his willingness to silence and humiliate his political opponents (and theirs), and his apparently glee in doing so. But that’s not all that made Christie the “smug, bullying embodiment of the Republican party,” as my fellow blogger Richard Eskow wrote last year. Christie’s bullying runs far deeper than petty political paybacks and tumultuous town hall meetings.
In 2011, Chris Christie addressed a Koch-convened, closed-door meeting of wealthy right-wing donors, and told them what he learned in New Jersey that could be applied to the rest of the country.
During the Q&A, one of the questioners wondered what Christie had learned in New Jersey that might be applied to the nation. His answer was direct: “This is not hard. We spend too much. We borrow too much. We tax too much. It is time to turn those three things around.”
“Now, pain will be inflicted when we change that,” he went on. “People are going to do with less. People who are used to having entitlement at a certain level will not have them at that level anymore. That’s the story.” Christie cited Wisconsin Rep. Paul Ryan’s “courageous” and “thoughtful plan” to “fix those systems” by replacing Medicare with a voucher program.
Just before the Kochs’ guests retired to sip complimentary after-dinner cordials and plot Obama’s downfall at the resort’s Buffalo Bar, Christie delivered this closer: “Please, if you leave with just one message from me, if only one message sticks: This is a huge moment of crisis and opportunity for our country. All of you are the people who are going to lead us back to American greatness. If you care enough to do it.”
“Pain will be inflicted,” is the creed of the bully, and the ethos of the “Bully Economy,” where might makes right for those who control wealth and power; “where the strong do what they can and the weak endure what they must.” Christie and the GOP failed to bring that vision to full fruition in 2012, but it has been a recurring theme in everything from sequestration, to cuts to food stamps, expiring unemployment benefits, and even a government shutdown. Pain has been inflicted, indeed.
Republicans may be reluctant to defend Christie, and even wary of claiming him as a conservative, now — but only because their celebrated bully is becoming a liability to their cause. It may get even worse. Three hundred pages of documents released on Friday show Christie’s aides orchestrated an elaborate cover-up to hide the real reason behind the George Washington Bridge lane closings. If Christie is implicated in the cover-up, it could mean the end of his governorship, let alone his presidential ambitions and Republicans’ hope for a viable candidate.
Republicans were happy to celebrate Chris Christie’s bullying, as pain was inflicted on other people. In the long run, Christie’s bullying may hurt the GOP more than any of his political enemies, real or perceived.