Minutes before Chris Christie’s press conference responding to Wednesday’s release of damning exchanges among his appointees, the New York Times reported that New Jersey’s U.S. attorney would open a preliminary inquiry. Those messages including a Christie Port Authority appointee saying, “Time for some traffic problems in Fort Lee,” further fueling allegations that Christie’s administration intentionally snarled traffic in that city to punish its mayor for not endorsing him. State Sen. Barbara Buono, whom Christie defeated in last year’s election, told Salon that the messages “should remove any scintilla of doubt in anyone’s mind that the governor was fully aware and directed it.”
To consider the coming U.S. attorney’s inquiry, Salon called former U.S. Attorney Frank Tuerkheimer, a University of Wisconsin emeritus professor who served as an associate special prosecutor in the Watergate investigation. A condensed and edited version of our Thursday morning conversation follows.
How much trouble legally is Chris Christie in right now?
If he either knew about this stuff, or even worse, if he initiated it or suggested it should happen, then I would think he’s in a lot of trouble politically -- and you could probably craft some violation out of it.
There’s a federal statute that criminalizes local corruption. Certain local crimes are made federal if there’s an interstate connection -- and let me tell you, the George Washington Bridge is an interstate connection. You couldn’t imagine a better definition of an interstate connection: a bridge that goes from New York to New Jersey. But I don’t know what the particular crime would be.
It’s the kind of thing that can either amount to zero, or it can go on for years. From what I read in the paper, I think that the potential ramifications are probably more political than legal.
I mean, clearly the stuff went on, and the best-case scenario is that he created an environment where this kind of thing would happen, which is not conducive to his claim of being a person who reaches across the aisle. Worst-case scenario is he somehow authorized it, which I hope isn’t the case. I mean, that would be terrible. And then he’s in deep trouble. Deeper trouble politically.
Why do you say the potential ramifications are more political than legal at this point?
I think you’re going to have to do a little bit of imaginative work with the criminal statutes to turn this into a crime. You know, criminal statutes have to be interpreted narrowly; you can’t just extend them beyond their wording. And frankly I can’t think of a statute which makes political retaliation per se a crime. I mean, that happens all the time: Somebody gets pissed off at someone because they didn’t support them and they retaliate. I don’t think that’s per se criminal.
If you were the U.S. attorney in this situation, how would you go about investigating this case?
Well, the first thing I would do is I’d want to make sure I had a legal basis for doing it. Assuming the facts are as bad as they could possibly be, is there a federal crime? And I’d want to make sure that that’s the case. That would be the way I’d start. If somebody jaywalks, you don’t start a grand jury investigation.
And if you concluded there was a basis, how would you proceed from there?
The way you just proceed in general is: At first you want to show that there was a crime. And then you deal with the lowest-level operatives you can, the people at the bottom of the chain.
And then how do you proceed from there?
Well, you see what they have to say, and do they implicate people higher up in the chain or don’t they? And then you work your way higher up the chain. That’s generally the way you do an investigation of this sort.
For someone in Christie’s situation, is there a tension between what would be politically savvy to do in the response, and what would be legally savvy to do in the response?
Legally, if you are a potential target of an investigation, the smart thing to do is to keep your mouth shut and say nothing. Politically, that can be very difficult. So in that sense -- and I’m saying this as a general matter -- whenever a politician could possibly be investigated criminally, there’s a tension between what you have to do politically and what is the smartest thing to do legally.
The smartest thing to do legally is to say nothing. But that’s tough politically.
The term “Nixonian” has gotten thrown around. Do you have any reaction to that, having worked on Watergate?
The term “Nixonian” is thrown around in the sense that while Nixon may not have directed the break-in of the Watergate to bug the Democratic National Committee, he created an environment in which the people that worked for him felt that’s something he might have wanted done.
And so I think when the term “Nixonian environment” is used in this situation, it conveys the same idea. It may not be true, but the reason, the analogy, is that the governor may not have directed that this be done, but may have made known that he wanted retaliation against Democratic mayors that didn’t support him. And that in and of itself is not criminal, but it could create an environment where somebody would do this, which may or may not be criminal. It’s in that sense that the term "Nixonian" is being used with respect to what’s being done today.
Does it strike you as appropriate to invoke?
Well, if you accept as a fact that subordinates of the governor did this to retaliate against the mayor for not backing him, and that they are subordinates who have direct contact with him -- they’re not low-level people in the political food chain so to speak -- then it would be appropriate. And that appears to be the case.
The fact that Gov. Christie himself was a U.S. attorney, does that strike you in some way in looking at this case?
No. I would assume that any elected official is going to want to comply with the law, and not break the law.