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4 ways Christie's 'innocence' hurts his chances in 2016

Even if you take the Christie report at face value, it still calls seriously into question the New Jersey governor's fitness for higher office.
New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie pauses before he answers a question during a news conference about the lane closures near the George Washington Bridge, March 28, 2014, in Trenton, N.J.
New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie pauses before he answers a question during a news conference about the lane closures near the George Washington Bridge, March 28, 2014, in Trenton, N.J.

Chris Christie headed off to Las Vegas (to campaign in the Shelly Adelson primary) a vindicated man, at least according to the $1 million taxpayer-funded report prepared at Christie’s behest by Gibson, Dunn, & Crutcher.

That the “more than 70 witnesses” interviewed for the report did not include Bridget Kelly, a deputy chief of staff to Christie, or David Wildstein, a Christie appointee to the Port Authority—the only two people thus far known to have participated in the George Washington Bridge lane shutdown that was the report’s purported subject—prompted The New York Times to denounce the report as a “whitewash.” But if you take the Gibson, Dunn report at face value — something I wouldn’t recommend — it still calls seriously into question Christie’s fitness for higher office.

Consider the following:

1. Christie thinks Fort Lee has too many dedicated toll lanes. According to the report, David Wildstein had a lot of “crazy” ideas. One of these ideas, which Wildstein first raised in 2010, was that Fort Lee shouldn’t have three dedicated toll lanes leading onto the George Washington Bridge. One could understand this point of view if Wildstein had meant there should be more such dedicated lanes in Fort Lee. (Let’s face it, the borough of Fort Lee is one big on-ramp to the George Washington Bridge.) But Wildstein thought there should be fewer such lanes. He thought this well before the Christie camp had the vaguest idea who Fort Lee Mayor Mark Sokolich was, much less that it would want to punish him. Screwing with Fort Lee’s lanes leading to the bridge was an idea that Wildstein thought had intrinsic value as public policy.

What sort of fool gives such a person any authority over New Jersey’s highways? Someone who shares Wildstein’s belief that Fort Lee has too many dedicated toll lanes. And indeed, on Dec. 2, Christie said, “I think we should review that entire policy 'cause I don't really know why Fort Lee needs three dedicated lanes, to tell you the truth.” Do we want such a person appointing the next transportation secretary?

2. Christie has a terrible memory. Wildstein “mentioned the traffic issue” to Christie at a public event while the lane closures were occurring. We can only speculate precisely how Wildstein phrased this (“Oh, by the way, I’ve been slowing down traffic leading to the George Washington Bridge”), but Christie didn’t remember the exchange later. For that matter, at a January press conference Christie could barely remember that he’d attended high school with Wildstein (“Let me just clear something up, okay, about my ‘childhood friend’ David Wildstein … We were not even acquaintances in high school”). This despite the fact that Wildstein was the statistician on the high school baseball team that Christie played on! A president is called on constantly to remember all sorts of things: names of foreign leaders, the difference between Shiites and Sunnis, etc. The White House is no place for an absent-minded professor.

3. Christie is not a person his closest aides will confide in. If I were governor and my political associates were plotting to turn Fort Lee into a parking lot, I like to think they’d feel comfortable letting me in on the prank. That would give me an opportunity to stop it (or, alternatively, for us all to share a collegial and morale-building giggle about it). Similarly, when Christie called a meeting of his senior staff on Dec. 13 and asked any who might have known of the lane closings to come forward, none did. One reason for their hesitation may have been that Christie had 11 days earlier gone out on a limb denying any involvement (“I worked the cones, actually. Unbeknownst to everybody I was actually the guy out there, in overalls and a hat. You really are not serious with that question”). A wiser and more presidential course for Christie might have been to reverse the order of these two actions: Ask the senior staff if they were involved, and only then, once assured that they were not, mock any suggestion that he was responsible.

4. Christie is very gullible … and maybe a little bit shy. As the report makes clear, The Wall Street Journal published its first stories speculating on political motives for the lane closings on Sept. 17 and Oct. 1. But Christie was told they were for a traffic study, and he didn’t question that, even though the Oct. 1 story had Port Authority Executive Director Patrick Foye denouncing the lane closings and halting them. Christie, according to the report, accepted Wildstein’s cobbled-together justifications for the “study.”

Wildstein,  according to the report, told Christie’s spokesman, Michael Drewniak, that Kelly and Stepian were involved in the lane closings, which ought to have set off alarm bells that this was not just some esoteric controversy for Port Authority traffic engineers. Others in Christie’s office were also hearing rumors of Kelly’s involvement. This was early December, before Christie’s out-with-it pitch to his staff. (It also would have been about the time Christie was openly mocking the idea of any involvement.) But Kelly and Stepian were denying they’d played any role to interrogators acting on Christie’s behalf—for some reason Christie, a former prosecutor, didn’t ask them himself—and the governor believed these denials.

Wildstein resigned on Dec. 6. There’s no sign Christie took that occasion to ask Wildstein about Bridgegate, even though it was not yet clear there would be a criminal investigation. Only after Foye said at a Dece. 9 public hearing that he was not aware of any actual traffic study did Christie himself confront his staff. He still didn’t confront Kelly or Wildstein directly. Nor did he do so after definitive evidence connecting Kelly and Wildstein to the closings (and circumstantial evidence connecting Stepian) appeared in the newspapers in early January. By then, Christie embraced the excuse that to do so might interfere with ongoing official investigations.

When Christie learned he’d been betrayed by Kelly and Wildstein, the report says, he expressed shock, and his eyes welled up with tears. There’s no crying in presidential politics! Edmund Muskie blew his chances in the 1972 primaries because he purportedly cried about an attack the Manchester Union-Leader ran against his wife. In Muskie’s case, the tears may not even have been real; he always claimed they were melting snowflakes, and The Washington Post’s David Broder later conceded he could have been right.

When you think about it, an innocent Christie comes across, arguably, as even less-plausible as the Republican nominee for 2016 than a guilty Christie. Would it really make sense to install somebody so completely clueless in the Oval Office?