As promised, the lawyers Gov. Chris Christie hired to investigate his bridge scandal have released their report, and though it’ll take a while to review the entirety of the 344-page document, one tidbit of news is already generating quite a few headlines.
The Port Authority official who oversaw the lane closings at the George Washington Bridge said that he had informed Gov. Chris Christie of New Jersey about it at a Sept. 11 memorial while the closings were occurring, according to results from an internal investigation released on Thursday by lawyers for the governor.The official, David Wildstein, told Mr. Christie’s press secretary, Michael Drewniak, of the Sept. 11 conversation at a dinner in December just before his resignation from the Port Authority, according to the report.
There’s been no shortage of questions surrounding the Christie scandal, and when, exactly, the governor learned about the deliberate lane closures in Fort Lee has been an ongoing area of interest, in part because Christie’s story has evolved over time.
This report, which appears to go out of its way to clear the governor and exonerate nearly all of his team, nevertheless suggests Christie was made aware of the scheme to punish Fort Lee with crippling traffic much earlier than he’s claimed. Indeed, it would suggest the governor was alerted to the situation while it was still ongoing.
The report does its very best to dismiss this detail as unimportant and put as positive a pro-Christie spin on the revelation as possible. (There are more than 400 references in the document to “lane realignment,” which is an amusing euphemism for “the governor’s aides closed lanes to cause a deliberate and dangerous traffic jam.”)
It notes that Christie “attended a 9/11 Memorial event at the World Trade Center in Lower Manhattan” on Sept. 11, 2013 – the third day of the scheme – and met with, among others, Bill Baroni and David Wildstein. It says the governor “exchanged pleasantries” with them.
The report goes on to say that Christie press secretary Michael Drewniak “recalled” David Wildstein “claiming he mentioned a traffic issue to the Governor at a public event during the lane realignment,” and the document’s authors assume Wildstein was “referring to an exchange” between him and the governor on Sept. 11.
It then presents a defense of the governor, which the Christie-hired lawyers apparently considered part of their mandate. From page 129 of the document:
To begin with, it seems incredible that, in a public setting leading up to a 9/11 Memorial event, surrounded by other government officials and scores of constituents seeking photographs and handshakes, anything substantive or inculpatory would have been discussed.Moreover, the context of Wildstein’s counsel’s claim that “evidence exists” of the Governor’s alleged knowledge of the lane realignment is critically important. First, it is a tacit admission that the Governor did not know of the lane realignment decision beforehand, and Wildstein apparently claims no such evidence. Second, Wildstein’s counsel made that claim in a letter to the Port Authority seeking indemnification for counsel’s legal fees, and only after he publicly requested immunity for his client. In other words, Wildstein’s counsel’s letter was a not-too-subtle attempt to press the Port Authority into granting Wildstein indemnification while, at the same time, to induce federal authorities to grant Wildstein immunity in exchange for Wildstein’s information here. Either way, such an account by Wildstein would not prove the Governor had any substantive knowledge, awareness and involvement in the lane realignment at the time.In any event, even if credited, any passing reference by Wildstein – made in a social, public setting at the time of a public 9/11 Memorial event – to a traffic issue in Fort Lee would not have been meaningful or memorable to the Governor. Indeed, it seems highly unlikely such a brief mention, even if made by Wildstein to the Governor, would have registered with the Governor at all. Only a more substantive conversation about the ulterior motive behind the Port Authority’s traffic study would have registered, and in that public setting, any claim that such a conversation occurred would lack credibility. In any event, the Governor recalls no such exchange.
Cut through the spin, assumptions, and suppositions, and we’re still left with a detail that may ultimately prove to be pretty important: even the report trying to clear Christie believes Christie may have been notified about the lane closures while the scheme was still being hatched.