New Jersey Governor Chris Christie could get knocked out of the 2016 presidential campaign before it even starts if allegations that he lied about his knowledge of politically-motivated traffic jams are true, bipartisan strategists said.
The attorney for a former political ally charged yesterday that the governor, a Republican, gave an incorrect account of what he knew about lane closings that paralyzed a town at the end of the George Washington Bridge after the mayor there failed to join other leading Democrats in endorsing his 2013 re-election bid.
“If it is true and he doesn’t have a credible explanation, it would go directly to the ‘trust’ issue, a critical vote-determinative attribute,” said Mary Matalin, a former adviser to President George W. Bush’s campaigns and administration. “Having said that, he is a superior politician and 2016 is a long way off.”
John Podesta, a senior adviser to President Barack Obama and former White House chief of staff to President Bill Clinton, said in an interview on Bloomberg Television’s “Political Capital with Al Hunt,” airing this weekend: “I think it’s a killer.”
The Christie administration, in an e-mail yesterday, repeated the governor’s assertion that he first learned of the closures when they were reported by the media and denied other claims by the lawyer for the former ally, David Wildstein, who was involved in the lane closures.
“Mr. Wildstein’s lawyer confirms what the governor has said all along: He had absolutely no prior knowledge of the lane closures before they happened, and whatever Mr. Wildstein’s motivations were for closing them to begin with.”
The e-mail added: “The governor denies Mr. Wildstein’s lawyer’s other claims.”
Even before yesterday’s suggestion of a lie, the bridge scandal provided fodder for opponents portraying Christie as a bully and undermined his claim to bipartisan leadership. As the new chairman of the Republican Governors Association, Christie faced protesters during a January fundraising trip to Florida. His departure from the possible field of Republican presidential contenders would be a major shake-up in the early jockeying.
Christie had been the one prospective candidate to run most competitively in some polls against former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, who is considering a Democratic bid.
After it was learned that Christie allies were responsible for the lane closures, Clinton moved ahead of him, 46 percent to 38 percent among voters, in a Jan. 21 survey by Hamden, Connecticut-based Quinnipiac University. That compares with a December poll by the university that showed the two essentially tied, with about 40 percent support for each.
The governor’s dominance among the prospective Republican candidates also has declined. A Jan. 23 Washington Post poll showed Christie with 14 percent support, compared with 18 percent for both House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan and former Florida Governor Jeb Bush. That represented a 10-percentage-point slide from the 24 percent support Christie garnered in a CNN/ORC poll taken after his November re-election.
There are varying degrees of damage to Christie in the overall narrative of the lane closures, depending on when he knew about them and whether he was involved, said Steve Munisteri, chairman of the Republican Party of Texas.
“If there was conclusive evidence that any governor ordered lane closures for political reasons, that would make it virtually impossible to run for national office,” he said.
Democrats, not surprisingly, were blunter in their assessment.
“It’s simple: He knew; he’s toast,” said Chris Kofinis, a Democratic strategist. “Forget about his presidential ambitions. He needs to start thinking about hiring a lawyer. If this is true, there’s no recovery.”
The Democratic National Committee called on Christie to discuss the latest revelations this weekend.
“He’s repeatedly said that he had no knowledge of the lane closures,” Mo Elleithee, a DNC spokesman said in a statement yesterday. “Today’s revelations raise serious questions about whether that is true.”
That assertion runs counter to Christie’s comments at a Jan. 9 news conference, when he repeatedly said he hadn’t been aware at the time of September traffic jams that they may have been engineered to punish Fort Lee Mayor Mark Sokolich for failing to endorse Christie for re-election last November. The governor swamped Democratic challenger Barbara Buono, 60 percent to 38 percent.
Alan Zegas, Wildstein’s lawyer, contradicted Christie in a letter to the Port Authority saying that the agency, which runs the bridge, should pay his client’s legal fees.
“A person within the Christie administration communicated the Christie administration’s order that certain lanes on the George Washington Bridge were to be closed,” Zegas wrote in the document.
“Evidence exists as well tying Mr. Christie to having knowledge of the lane closures, during the period when the lanes were closed, contrary to what the governor stated publicly in a two-hour press conference he gave immediately before Mr. Wildstein was scheduled to appear before the Transportation Committee,” Zegas wrote. “Mr. Wildstein contests the accuracy of various statements that the Governor made about him and he can prove the inaccuracy of some.”
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