Chris Christie delivers the State of the State Address, Jan.14, 2014.
Jeff Zelevansky/Getty Images

The bridgegate question Christie isn’t asking

Updated

On January 12, Politico identified ten unanswered questions about bridgegate and managed to leave off the only one that matters: who ordered the deliberately punitive shutdown of two traffic lanes leading to the George Washington Bridge? Maybe Politico was channeling Chris Christie, who at a January 9 press conference said he was wholly ignorant of his office’s involvement until news of it broke the day before in the Bergen County Record. Since then, to judge from Christie’s public silence on the question of who made bridgegate happen, he’s kept that ignorance intact.

It’s de rigeur for a politician in Christie’s awkward situation to bang a fist on the table and pledge that, by God, he’ll find the bad apples and toss them out of the barrel. To some extent, Christie did that at the press conference. “I spent all day yesterday digging into talking to folks and getting to the bottom of things,” Christie said. He said that process would continue. “I’m going through an examination,” Christie said, “and talking to the individual people who work for me, not only to discover if there’s any other information that we need to find, but also to ask them: How did this happen?”

Almost immediately, though, the avidity of Inspector Christie’s interrogations came into question when he acknowledged that he hadn’t spoken to Bridget Anne Kelly before firing her. Kelly, one of Christie’s three deputy chiefs of staff, had authored the now-famous email: “Time for some traffic problems in Fort Lee.” Any “examination” that wasn’t a complete sham would have begun by asking Kelly why she wrote that e-mail, who told her to do it, and who else was in on the whole reckless prank. But at the press conference, Christie said, “I have not had any conversation with Bridget Kelly since the email came out.”

It was the same with Christie’s former campaign manager Bill Stepien. At the January 9 press conference Christie said he’d “instructed” Stepien–who was poised to become chairman of the Republican Governors Association–to sever his ties with the RGA. But he hadn’t spoken directly to Stepien, even though he was “one of my closest advisers over the last five years.” Stepian had to go, Christie said, because of the “tone and behavior and attitude” he displayed in the emails published by the Record. (Stepien called Fort Lee Mayor Mark Sokolich “an idiot.”) The e-mails suggest–though don’t prove–that Stepien was in on the prank, too. Christie therefore missed a second potential opportunity to find out who masterminded it. (Now it’s probably too late, because Stepien has lawyered up.)

A former federal prosecutor like Christie surely knows you don’t let witnesses wander off before they answer a few questions. On the other hand, a former federal prosecutor like Christie also knows that talking to a likely witness in a legal proceeding might lead to accusations that he suborned perjury or interfered in some other way that might bring him grief, politically if not legally. When pressed on why he didn’t talk to Kelly, Christie said, “There are legislative hearings that are going to come and all the rest. And I don’t want to get myself in the middle of that…. it wouldn’t be appropriate for me to get in the middle of that because then there would be all kinds of other allegations about those conversations.”

True enough. But equal and opposite to this legal imperative there was (and remains) the boss’s need to find out who’s been doing mischief in his shop. Otherwise, how do you keep that mischief from continuing? At least one member of Christie’s own staff is now known to have been in league with Christie allies at the Port Authority to do something Christie himself says was “unacceptable,” “callous and indifferent,” an act of “abject stupidity.” It may turn out to have been illegal, and already it’s likely damaged his presidential prospects. But in the week since Christie dispatched Kelly and Stepien, no further heads have rolled.

The legal imperative, it should further be noted, matters only to whatever extent Christie’s professed ignorance of bridgegate prior to the Bergen County Record story is less than total. An entirely innocent interlocutor would have little to fear because the conversation would consist merely of him asking what happened. A less-innocent interlocutor, on the other hand, would have much to fear because the conversation might occasion damaging retrospective interpretations of what the interlocutor previously told his staff (“Will no one rid me of this troublesome priest?”). It would be hard for the interlocutor to resist the urge to dispute such interpretations.

Plus there’s the matter of simple curiosity. Christie’s a schmoozy guy. How can he possibly stand not knowing what mischief occurred right under his nose?

One striking feature of the Watergate tapes is President Richard Nixon’s incuriosity about who the ordered the June 1972 break-in at the Democratic National Committee headquarters. If you were a president who would ultimately be forced to resign because you tried to cover up a burglary committed at the behest of the White House staff, wouldn’t you want to know what numbskull created this problem for you? But except for one strained remark that sounds very much as though Nixon is addressing the tape recorder directly, Nixon didn’t ask. A highly compelling conclusion is that Nixon didn’t ask because he already knew the answer: he ordered the break-in himself. The closing of two traffic lanes is not a burglary. But as the days pass and Christie demonstrates a similar incuriosity about who ordered bridgegate, it will become harder not to conclude that for Christie, that isn’t much of a mystery.

 

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The bridgegate question Christie isn't asking

Updated