NJ Gov. Christie's Revenge Scandal Shows He'd Be a Big Danger in the White House

News & Politics

(Editor's note. This report has been updated with new developments.)

New Jersey’s Republican Gov. Chris Christie summoned his forceful personality on Thursday to apologize for a political revenge scandal involving a top aide and appointees in an effort to salvage his reputation and likely run for the presidency in 2016.

“I have a tight-knit group of people that I trusted implicitly,” he told reporters at a press conference lasting more than an hour. “It is heart breaking to me that I was not told the truth.”

Christie said he was “lied to,” “betrayed,” “saddened” and going through “stages of grief” in response to reading e-mails and text messages reprinted in the Wednesday edition of the Bergen Record newspaper, where his deputy chief of staff, a top appointee at the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, and campaign manager shut down traffic at the George Washington Bridge in the first week of school—and then gloated—as revenge on the mayor of Fort Lee for not endorsing his re-election.

During the press conference, Christie sought to smooth over the scandal by focusing on his personality—not the substance of the scandal where trusted subordinates clearly felt comfortable abusing their power and authority on his behalf. That observation was not lost on reporters who have been watching Christie position himself for a 2016 White House run.

If anything, The New York Times has extensively covered other incidents where Christie has intimidated and punished opponents and critics, including this report on Thursday of a state environmental board member who was told he might face legal consequences if he voted against a pipeline through of of the state’s most pristine natural areas.

“I am not a bully,” Christie told reporters, while cutting off their questions and repeatedly saying that the test of leadership is how one reacts when mistakes are made. Christie said that he fired his deputy chief of staff and told his campaign manager not to apply for the state chairmanship of the Republican Party.

“I had no knowledge or interest in this issue, in its planning or execution,” he said. “I am stunned by the abject stupidity that was shown here.”

Christie said that he has been doing a lot of soul-searching in the past 24 hours since the e-mails and texts appeared, which is undoubtedly true as this scandal threatens his 2016 presidential aspirations. What he did not reflect on at the press conference was how his leadership style creates an atmosphere where threats and retribution are commonplace.

(Editor's note; What follows is AlterNet's report published in Thursday morning's edition.)

New Jersey Republican Gov. Chris Christie is denying any knowledge of an obsessive and vindictive effort by a deputy chief of staff and his appointees to hurt a Democratic mayor who wouldn’t endorse his 2013 re-election bid, after a New Jersey newspaper published 20 pages of e-mails and texts from the Christie loyalists who were gleeful about wreaking havoc in the Democratic enclave of Fort Lee last fall.

“What I’ve seen today for the first time is unacceptable,” Christie, the leading 2016 GOP presidential prospect, said Wednesday. “I am outraged and deeply saddened to learn that not ony was I misled by a member of my staff, but this completely inappropriate and unsanctioned conduct was made without my knowldege.”

Christie’s scripted apology comes after months of arrogant denials in a scandal that puts his judgement and leadership into sharp relief. It is almost inconceivable that the brash governor would not have known about actions undertaken on his behalf by top aides—from the governor’s office, his re-election campaign and senior appointees.   

For months, the brash New Jersey governor has been hitting back at reporters and critics who dared to suggest that the surprise closure of three lanes of traffic on the New Jersey approach to the George Washington Bridge in the opening week of school was retribution for the Democratic Mayor of Fort Lee not endorsing Christie’s 2013 re-election.

Three weeks ago, Christie said at press conference that he was angry that the city had three dedicated lanes for an approach to one of the area’s busiest bridges—all but telling commuters, school bus drivers and emergency responders to shut up. “I don’t know why Fort Lee needs three dedicated lanes, to tell the truth… That kind of gets me sauced.”

Christie’s bravado has now blown up and badly backfired, as national political reporters, such as The Washington Post’s Chris Cillizza are now writing that “Bridge-gate is a very real problem” for the Republican who’s been leading in polls as the party’s presidential nominee in 2016. Christie and the presumptive Democratic nominee, Hillary Clinton, have been running neck and neck, with support just below 50 percent.

“Prior to these e-mails, the story was—in Christie’s retelling—a case of the Port Authority acting badly,” the Post’s Cillizza wrote. “Well, now, one of his top aides is caught red-handed delivering a bit of political payback.”

Christie apparently cancelled an event in Ocean City on Wednesday to respond to the publication of the e-mails and texts by Bergen Record, a northern New Jersey newspaper.

“Time for some traffic problems in Ft. Lee,” wrote Bridget Anne Kelly, the governor’s deputy chief of staff, on Aug. 13, 2013, to David Wildstein, a Christie appointee at the Port Authority, which operates the bridges between New York and New Jersey. “Got it,” replied Wildstein, who, ordered that three lanes be closed for a traffic study.

The closure brought traffic on one of the nation’s busiest bridges to a virtual standstill. School buses arrived hours late. Emergency responders could not get to area hospitals—leading to at least one death. Efforts by New York’s appointees to reopen the lanes went unanswered. Afterward, as reporters explored what was going on, Christie brushed it off, claiming his office and  campaign weren’t involved. He even joked about moving the traffic cones himself.  

It’s anybody’s guess whether the GOP will embrace Christie’s bullying and arrogance as presidential-level credentials. At the very least, the e-mails and texts between Christie’s aides and appointees show that Christie is not a governor with bipartisan support—as his publicists advertise, but a governor who surrounds himself with political thugs.

“The bridge story itself, while small in terms, reveals a political culture around Christie of people who have no business holding power,” wroteNew York magazine’s Jonathan Chait. “They display an almost comical venality, bordering on outright sociopathy.”

Once the lane closure was in effect, Wildstein, who last month resigned from his Port Authority post amid the escalating scandal, gloated over the punishment in these texts—most likely written to Christie’s deputy chief of staff, Kelly. The transcripts obtained blacked out the name of the recipient.   

 “Is it wrong that I’m smiling,” the unnamed recipient responded.

“No,” Wildstein wrote in response.

“I feel badly about the kids,” the person replied. “I guess.”

“They are the children of Buono voters,” Wildstein wrote.

Sen. Barbara Buono was the Democratic candidate for governor last fall, who lost to Christie. In another exchange, Wildsteim wrote to Christie’s campaign manager, saying, “The mayor is an idiot… It will be a tough November for this little Serbian.”

New Jersey Democratic legislators, who have been investigating the incident, said that Christie was going have a hard time distancing himself from his top staff and appointees. “At the very least, this is so bizarre that it’s worthy of a Saturday Night Live parody, or at worst, it’s disgusting,” Senate Majority Leader Loretta Weinberg told the Record.

Buono said that Christie’s staff and appointees were “terrible people and shouldn’t be in public office.” She said the e-mails and texts displayed “a web of deceit and subterfuge and political retribution leading straight to Chris Christie.”

It very well may be that this seemingly small episode is politics as usual in New Jersey. But it also reeks of pettiness, arrogance and amateurism—all tied to Christie—and none of that will be forgotten if he seeks the presidency in 2016. In presidential politics, voters are deciding whose judgement they can trust. Christie and his team may run New Jersey like shakedown artists, but that’s not what the rest of America seeks in a president.

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