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Five Takeaways From Christie's Self-Exoneration Report

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The 300-page report commissioned by Chris Christie on the September lane closures at the George Washington Bridge and allegations that his administration used Sandy recovery funds to pressure the mayor of Hoboken to accept a big development project came out today, and not surprisingly, it lets Christie off the hook on both counts. As I noted earlier in the week, the team of lawyers doing the $1 million job (paid by taxpayers!) includes someone whom Christie awarded a lucrative corporate-monitoring contract to in 2007, who calls him a “very dear friend,” and who accompanied him wild-pig hunting in Texas a few years ago. (Somehow, the report’s biographical background on that lawyer saw fit to mention none of those facts.) It’s hardly a breaking news flash that the report should conclude, in prose that would make even Lanny Davis blush, “Governor Christie’s accounts of these events rings true. It is corroborated by many witnesses, and he has conducted himself at every turn as someone who has nothing to hide.” Well then! If the people being paid $650-per-hour by Christie say so, it must be true.

As suspect as the report’s origins and motivations may be, though, it does contain some interesting kernels. Here, in no particular order, are five key points I took from it:

1. The retribution really was motivated at least partly by the Fort Lee Mayor's refusal to endorse. All along, it’s seemed hard for many people to believe that the Christie aides’ retribution against Mayor Mark Sokolich could have been grounded in his refusal to endorse Christie. Yes, Christie had been trying very hard to get as many Democratic officials as he could to endorse him to add to his bipartisan veneer, but would failure to endorse really come at such a cost?

Well, the report sure makes it sound as if it did. While Sokolich had made clear in the spring that he did not plan to endorse Christie, the report states that Christie’s then-deputy chief of staff, Bridget Kelly, made a final check with a colleague about the status of Sokolich’s non-endorsement on August 12, the night before she sent her infamous “time for some traffic problems in Fort Lee” e-mail to David Wildstein, Christie’s political liaison at the Port Authority. “Kelly asked whether Mayor Sokolich was going to endorse Governor Christie, and [her colleague] responded that he was not. Kelly responded, in sum or substance, that that was all she needed to know.”

2. Wildstein told Christie’s spokesman in December that Christie knew of the closures as they were happening. Since Christie began addressing the lane closures in December, he has been all over the map on the crucial question of when he first learned of the lane closures. First, he said he learned of them weeks later, then that he learned of them just after they had finished, and then, when Wildstein’s lawyer asserted on January 31 that evidence existed that Christie had know about the closures while they were underway, Christie’s office initially responded that this was consistent with Christie’s own version, before reversing again and saying he’d learned of them after they’d been stopped.

This is more than a mere calendar quibble. If Christie knew of the lane closures while they were underway and causing massive back-ups in Fort Lee, why did he, as a famously on-top-of-it governor, not try to figure out what was going on and whether the closures were justified? Unless, of course, he was actually in on the retributive aspect of the closures himself. Well, in the new report, we have more detail around Wildstein’s claim that Christie knew while the closures were happening: Wildstein told Christie spokesman Michael Drewniak at a dinner in early December that he had told Christie of the closures when they appeared together at a September 11 memorial event in lower Manhattan, on the third day of the closures. Notably, the lawyers drafting the report do not dispute the veracity of Wildstein’s claim but instead downplay it by asserting that Christie simply didn’t pay the information much mind. As the lead lawyer on the report, former Rudy Giuliani deputy Randy Mastro said today, “There are traffic problems all the time with the bridges and tunnels, so that would not be a significant event, a memorable event.” Hmmm.

3. Christie’s lawyers are intent on protecting Christie’s top political guru, Bill Stepien. Back when Christie fired Bridget Kelly after the “time for some traffic problems” e-mail emerged, he also declared he was cutting ties with his chief political guru, Bill Stepien, who had moved out of the governor’s office in April to consult for the Republican Governors Association, which Christie now leads, and to prepare for a likely Christie presidential campaign. While the e-mails that had surfaced had not implicated Stepien as directly as Kelly, they had shown him speaking very cavalierly about the closures and Sokolich. Well, the fuller picture provided by the new report suggests even more strongly that Stepien, who had led the efforts to snare endorsements for Christie while he was in the governor’s office, was aware of the retributive aspect to the lane closures. The report has him referring to the lane closures beforehand as one of Wildstein’s “50 crazy ideas”—would he really have referred to them as such if he thought them to be part of a legitimate traffic study? The report shows Wildstein forwarding angry emails from the Fort Lee mayor during the closures straight to Stepien—why would Wildstein be doing so if Stepien wasn’t in on the scheme? It has Stepien calling the mayor an "idiot" in notes to Wildstein and praising Wildstein for his savvy. And the report has Stepien texting thanks to Bill Baroni, the deputy Port Authority director, after he testified to a legislative committee in November that the closures were part of a traffic study.

Yet the report’s authors go out of their way to conclude that Stepien was not in on the scheme: “We found no evidence” that Stepien “knew of the ulterior motive here, besides the claimed purpose of conducting a traffic study.” Of his thank you note to Baroni, the report states that it “reflects a supportive tone on Stepien’s part, but it is not clear why Stepien would be ‘thanking’ Baroni at that point.” Well, I can think of one possible reason why…

The report also finds innocent of inside prior knowledge Baroni himself, but at least in Baroni’s case the report can point to an e-mail showing him professing seemingly genuine disbelief that the closures were politically motivated. In the case of Stepien, who like Wildstein and Kelly did not cooperate with the report, there seems a willful effort on the part of the authors to offer the benefit of the doubt and keep Stepien in the fold.

4. The odds of Bridget Kelly and David Wildstein telling all to the feds just went up. In sharp contrast to the gentle treatment of Stepien and Baroni, the report is lacerating toward Kelly and Wildstein. Not only does it put blame for the closures entirely on them, it manages to let slip that Stepien and Kelly, a recently divorced mom, had become “personally involved” in the spring and early summer but that their “personal relationship had cooled, apparently at Stepien’s choice, and they largely stopped speaking.” Not sure why it’s relevant for the world to know who broke up with whom, but now we do. While the initial word was that Kelly was feeling broken-hearted and deeply loyal toward Christie in the wake of her firing, and thus perhaps not so likely to open up against him and other aides in response to queries from federal prosecutors investigating the closures, this report surely raises the odds of her deciding to do so. As for Wildstein, he’s been advertising his willingness to cooperate for weeks now, but if he was holding anything at all back, this report gives him reason to cut loose even further.

5. This whole scandal may well not have come to life but for one dogged reporter. Whole pages of the report consist pretty much entirely of the Christie administration and his Port Authority appointees scrambling to respond to the questions and articles coming from a lone reporter who was pressing to learn more about the closures in the weeks after they occurred: Ted Mann, the transportation reporter for the Wall Street Journal’s metro New York section. Rupert Murdoch created the Journal’s New York section to challenge his big nemesis, the New York Times. The section’s greatest journalistic coup to date has been to severely wound the presidential prospects of the Republican across the river who had been championed for years by the Journal’s editorial page and by Murdoch himself. We know what’s Australian for “beer.” What’s Australian for “irony”?