Less than a week ago, during a radio interview, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie (R) was asked about the bridge scandal dogging his administration. “I’ve asked my staff to give me a full briefing. They’ve told me everything we know,” he said, dismissing the controversy. The governor quickly added about the allegations, “None of it makes sense.”
This posturing quickly fell apart today, when we learned the story actually makes perfect sense: Christie’s top staff was directly involved in crippling Fort Lee, on purpose, as political retribution for the local mayor choosing not to endorse the governor’s re-election. Christie canceled his scheduled event for this afternoon and hasn’t appeared publicly. He did, however, issue a written statement this afternoon:
“What I’ve seen today for the first time is unacceptable. I am outraged and deeply saddened to learn that not only was I misled by a member of my staff, but this completely inappropriate and unsanctioned conduct was made without my knowledge. One thing is clear: this type of behavior is unacceptable and I will not tolerate it because the people of New Jersey deserve better. This behavior is not representative of me or my Administration in any way, and people will be held responsible for their actions.”
Note, over the last month, Christie dismissed the very idea of this story as absurd. Today, the governor is no longer denying what is plainly true: his administration abused its power and punished some of the governor’s own constituents simply to punish a mayor who refused to play ball with Christie’s campaign gameplan.
The materials that caused today’s firestorm were incomplete – some of the documents included redactions, and many of the subpoenaed materials have not yet been made available to the public – but the notion that some of the scandalous details were taken out of context is a non-starter. Christie is no longer saying the allegations are wrong; he’s saying he was out of the loop.
To be sure, no evidence to the contrary has yet emerged. We can’t yet say with certainty what the governor knew and when, but it is possible that some of the governor’s top political aides, including his own deputy chief of staff, orchestrated this dangerous scheme without Christie’s knowledge and then repeatedly lied to him about what transpired.
But this won’t necessarily solve the governor’s problem. As the Star Ledger editorialized this afternoon, “His attempts to laugh this off now appear to be dishonest, though we can’t yet be sure that he personally knew about the correspondence of one of his top aides. Still, Christie bears responsibility either way. If it turns out he did know, he is obviously lying and unfit for office – let alone a 2016 presidential run. And even if he did not, his officials are liars. If Christie can’t control them, how can we trust him as a potential future leader of our country?”
At a certain level, the governor is saying this is less a Watergate-style story and more an Iran-Contra story – the person with all the power wasn’t calling the shots, he was simply ignorant, overseeing an operation filled with dishonest aides abusing their power.
In other words, the defense is that Christie wasn’t in control of his own administration, and his top allies orchestrated a scandal without bothering to let him know.
If the governor thinks this ends the story, he’s going to be disappointed.