Chris Christie's Botched Attempt at Bridgegate Character AssassinationPaul M. Barrett
To work, character assassination has to make sense. New Jersey Governor Chris Christie seems to have forgotten this cardinal rule of political warfare.
To review: Christie crony David Wildstein engineered the fateful traffic jams on the Jersey side of the George Washington Bridge, landing the pugnacious governor and 2016 Republican hopeful in a career-threatening morass. Wildstein, through his lawyer (pdf), says there’s evidence that Christie knew much more about the traffic gambit—an act of revenge aimed at the mayor of Fort Lee, N.J.—than the governor has so far admitted.
The prospect of Wildstein, formerly a Christie-approved appointee at the Port Authority of New York & New Jersey, telling all he knows about Christie’s role could escalate Bridgegate to Defcon Level 1. Why? Because federal prosecutors are looking for evidence of a criminal coverup. And as a moderate Republican pol from an earlier era taught us during the original “-gate” scandal, it’s not so much the crime that hurts—it’s the coverup.
So Christie and his legal SWAT team decide to go medieval on Wildstein. Here’s what they came up with: “In David Wildstein’s past, people and newspaper accounts have described him as ‘tumultuous’ and someone who ‘made moves that were not productive.’” That’s from a 700-word Christie hit memo first disclosed by Politico. The memo continues with this bill of particulars:
“As a 16-year-old kid, he sued over a local school board election. He was publicly accused by his high school social studies teacher of deceptive behavior. He had a controversial tenure as mayor of Livingston [N.J.]. He was an anonymous blogger known as Wally Edge. He had a strange habit of registering web addresses for other people’s names without telling them.”
“Bottom line,” the Christie broadside summed up, “David Wildstein will do and say anything to save David Wildstein.”
OK, it’s hard to argue with the idea that Wildstein is scrambling for political cover and legal immunity in hopes that if he can serve up his erstwhile political benefactor the authorities will go easier on him. The problem with Christie’s attack, though, is that Wildstein was Christie’s guy on the Port Authority.
Christie praised Wildstein’s tenure when he resigned late last year after being sought for testimony by the [New Jersey] Assembly committee investigating the lane closures. Wildstein has long been portrayed as a close friend of Christie’s, and included in the email from the governor’s office is a story from the Bergen Record headlined, “Ex Blogger Is Governor Christie’s Eyes, Ears Inside The Port Authority.”
If Wildstein has been a notorious liar since high school social studies class and, more recently, an Internet weirdo using the handle Wally Edge—and, needless to say, these are merely allegations at this point—then why was Wildstein welcome in the Christie camp all these years? Is Christie’s defense that, having surrounded himself with vengeful incompetents, he had no idea what his subordinates were doing, and therefore he deserves a pass? That’s not terribly coherent.
What’s truly strange about the way Christie is handling himself is that he has some of the best legal talent money can buy mapping his strategy. Representing the Christie reelection campaign is Robert Luskin of the Washington law firm Patton Boggs. Luskin’s past accomplishments include rescuing ex-George W. Bush political adviser Karl Rove from getting indicted in the investigation into the outing of CIA agent Valerie Plame. The New Jersey governor’s office, meanwhile, has hired Randy Mastro of Gibson, Dunn & Crutcher, a former top aide to ex-New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani, who’s been one of Christie’s main advocates during the bridge closure fiasco. Mastro has built a powerhouse litigation practice in New York representing major corporations such as Chevron, as well as prominent individuals.
It’s difficult to picture either Luskin or Mastro signing off on the flailing smear memo about Wildstein. That raises the question of whether Christie, himself a former federal prosecutor, is making the worst mistake available to a lawyer in trouble: representing himself.