Steve Kornacki's wild month: MSNBC host opens up on Christie, his reporting and what happens next

"I might have lost a couple friendships over this," says the longtime New Jersey reporter of his recent reporting

By Josh Eidelson
January 23, 2014 6:30PM (UTC)
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Steve Kornacki (MSNBC)

As scandals surrounding Chris Christie have dominated the past weeks’ political news, MSNBC host Steve Kornacki has become a seemingly constant cable presence. A former local New Jersey political reporter – whose then-boss, coincidentally, was now-disgraced Christie appointee David Wildstein (who used a pseudonym at the time) – Kornacki sparked national attention last weekend, when he broke news of allegations the Christie administration had held Hurricane Sandy relief funds for Hoboken hostage to approval of a favored development plan. The charge, reported by Kornacki and voiced on air by Hoboken Mayor Dawn Zimmer, was quickly denied and denounced by the Christie camp.

Salon called up Kornacki – our former political writer and editor, and still an occasional contributor – to discuss the Zimmer bombshell (“I am very well-convinced that she absolutely believes that this is what happened”); his past dealings with Chris Christie (“he wanted to be on my radar”); and where the Christie story line goes next. "I worry that in some cases I might have lost a couple friendships over this," said Kornacki. A condensed version of our conversation follows.


How did you get that [Dawn Zimmer] story, and how did you get it to point that it could go public?

It’s one of those weird things, right? I guess I can’t tell you the whole story, because there are certain kinds of confidences involved and, you know, off-the-record conversations. But basically, you could say that it helped that I have relationships and connections in New Jersey … I sort of caught wind of what the mayor believed happened. And you know, was connected to her, heard her story.

And I said: Well, that sounds interesting, it sounds important, but do you have some evidence? That’s where I was surprised, when she said, “Well, I have diary entries and I have emails and documents” …


We were able to look through them, look through the diary, and basically subjected the story she was telling to a ... plausibility test … So after we looked at the evidence and reviewed it, you know, we felt, yes, that was a story worth exposing. That’s a story worth putting out there … We made sure to run it by [Commissioner of Community Affairs Richard] Constable, run it by [Lt. Gov. Kim] Guadagno, run it by the governor’s office, get their comments — which you see — and let her tell the story …

Do you believe that everything Mayor Zimmer has described is true?

I guess I take a position that it’s plausible … My determination was: It’s plausible, she has the evidence, she wants to go on the record. This is not me coming in and saying, “Hey, I have confirmed that this is what happened.” This is her coming out and saying, “I allege this.” And we wanted to make sure that if we were going to be giving the platform to somebody, to make it a condition that they are coming to it with evidence, and that their story is plausible …


My own observation is, I am very well-convinced that she absolutely believes that this is what happened … The idea that she completely invented this and went back and backdated diary entries … for a number of reasons I just find that very hard to believe. I believe that in her mind, what she has told us is absolutely what happened.

Now, that leaves open the possibility of was there some kind of epic miscommunication between her and the lieutenant governor, where they were just both saying and hearing completely opposite things, and somehow she walked away hearing what she says she heard, and felt that that message was being amplified a few months later when she met with Richard Constable…


But she sat down to that interview knowing that it was going to attract attention from authorities, that she was probably going to have to end up telling that story and sharing those diaries with the U.S. attorney. That’s obviously an extremely serious thing: If you’re full of it, and you try to put one over on the U.S. attorney’s office, you’re in deep, deep trouble … That is one reason why I am pretty well-convinced that she absolutely believes this.

The Christie administration responded in part by saying, “MSNBC is a partisan network that has been openly hostile to Governor Christie and almost gleeful in their efforts attacking him.” Is that a fair criticism?

… To be honest, our attitude is, in this case, we will let the report that we aired, we will let the allegations that Dawn Zimmer made, speak for themselves. I think what she told us, what she showed us in terms of documents, and the fact that she went to the U.S. attorney the next day -- apparently at their behest -- and shared all of it with them, she’s making some very serious allegations.


They are serious for her: If they blow up in her face, the penalty she’ll pay is steep. But they’re serious in terms of the questions they raise about the Christie administration. And the administration’s statement that you are talking about didn’t get into any of those questions. And those are the only questions that we are interested in asking and getting answered.

Given your role in bringing this story to light, do you think your credibility is now tied up in her credibility?

I don’t think so. Because, you know, this is an elected official who went on the record in every way imaginable ... I mean, these are her allegations. This is a mayor of a city, that wanted to go on a national television program and challenge two members of Chris Christie’s administration to go under oath, to take a lie detector test, and she would be willing to do so herself. And the story that she came to us with, that she brought us with the documents, suggests plausibility …


Even if you get beyond the question of the Sandy aid and the development deal … Hoboken’s a city that has to do a lot of work, obviously, with the Port Authority. And here are city officials getting emails from the law firm of the Port Authority chairman, with the Port Authority chairman copied on those emails, and basically saying we want to get [Chairman] David Samson on the phone with you. That raises some very clear ethical questions too.

What you heard from Mayor Zimmer, did that shape, or change, or reinforce your analysis of some of these other allegations around the governor’s office?

Not mine, no …

My observation on that is just … one of the first questions we had — one of the first questions that everybody had— was: OK, this happened in May of 2013, why are you telling us right now?” And she said: "I didn’t think many people would believe me in May of 2013." And I think that’s largely true.


Just think back … the [2013] New Jersey governor’s race, was like a non-event. The Democratic Party was basically rolling over. You didn’t really see a critical story about Chris Christie up in the media, nobody would really touch it …

So, in that climate, yeah, I think it’s likely that she would have been marginalized. And in the current climate, I think there is just sort of a broad reexamination of Christie in [his] leadership style that’s going on right now … People in general are a lot more open to the possibilities that what she is saying, you know, is true. And if that means she should be given a profile in courage award? No. But … it explains some of the logic of it.

You’ve been covering Christie for a long time – you mentioned to the [New York] Times the personal emails you used to get from him back when he was a U.S. attorney. Has your understanding of Chris Christie changed over the past month?

No … Getting those emails from him … when he was U.S. attorney … told me a few things about him that have sort of been confirmed for everybody over the last month.


It shows you how attentive he was to his own image. I mean, here I was 23 years old or whatever, writing this political blog in New Jersey, but he cared very much about how he was portrayed to the political world in New Jersey … It told me that Chris Christie was very attentive to his image. It told me he was very interested in having a political future in New Jersey, you know. He wanted to be on my radar — he wanted to be on the political world’s radar …

I’m nobody -- I might have been making minimum wage at that website -- and here’s the U.S. attorney emailing me to ask, you know, how my time off went … Sometimes just really, probably innocuous things. Like he would tell me how he really liked this column you wrote. Or, I remember on Election Day, he just wanted to give me some sort of update from the U.S. attorney’s office about, you know, how they were making sure there had been no trouble at the polls. There were times where it just seemed that he was kind of going out of his way to find an excuse to write to me and be on my good side …

It’s how he would talk to any reporter, I think, who was covering him for any amount of time. That’s been the story for him …

When you get to the question of the bridge story … It’s one of the reasons it’s so hard for people who cover New Jersey politics … to believe that he didn’t — it’s possible to believe he didn’t know ahead of time, but it’s so hard to believe he didn’t know pretty early on what was up, because of the fact that he is just so hands-on involved on everything …


That’s just his style as a person, as a leader. So it’s hard to believe that this would be all going on — the press would be writing all these questions, these emails that are coming in to people around him are raising red flags — and he would be totally in the dark, and not curious even. And that’s hard to swallow.

You’ve disclosed repeatedly that the person you were working for [at that blog] is David Wildstein. There’s a whole cast of people [involved] here you know, from well to somewhat. What’s that been like for you, to know these people in a past life? And to have New Jersey politics go from something people may follow locally to the top political story in the country?

It’s so weird … It’s put me in a position here where I can contribute something of value …

But at the same time this is a serious story …

The story we told about the Hoboken … there a lot of different interests who were involved in that story — and I know a lot of them … Names that don’t necessarily pop up in our reporting. But people that I’ve known a long time, and have friendships with. And you know, I look at [it] now, and I worry that in some cases I might have lost a couple friendships over this. I might have lost the respect of some people who I respect.

I’ve heard from plenty of people in New Jersey who are saying, “really good job,” and are trying to offer me tips, and talking on the phone constantly. But ... there are people I know, and there are people I consider friends, people I have respect for, who maybe don’t like the direction it is going. And I gotta deal with that too.

You took over your show from Chris Hayes. In his incarnation it got a lot of attention for going into some policy areas that don’t always get sustained attention, [and] for the diversity of the people that went on the show. How much overlap is there between what he was doing with the show and what you’re doing? And has this set of scandals in New Jersey changed how you think about what your show is for?

Maybe we should just hope for never-ending news out of New Jersey …

What I’ve hoped to do is to, you know -- break news is one thing, this is the biggest example of it — but also to use the show to add context. Whatever the major political stories of the week, to add context … I think what we’ve done has been sort of a work in progress …

Chris did the show that was pitch-perfect for Chris … I look at video clips of "Up" — and I’m always like, wow: That was the perfect format for him, and he was the perfect person to do that. And you know, we’re working toward finding a place where we can say that fits me just as perfectly.

The Dawn Zimmer story you told on the air, you also told in a piece (with credit to Jack Bohrer and Dafna Linzer) written as a news story on the website. What do you see as the contrast in those different ways of storytelling? Do you think people receive the news differently [on TV]?

I think so … In reading a report like that on the air, you are able to use pauses, elevate your voice, lower your voice -- you’re able to do certain things to emphasize the key points … We’re able to do that more effectively maybe through television.

The other thing is that, you know, context. The written version of this can be pretty direct with its lede, and can take you through pretty much just what we collected, fact by fact, quote by quote. The version we aired on television … we start with the quick overview … But then we back up, and we’re able to tell a story that really gives you context …

[Mayor Zimmer’s] experience is watching her predecessor going off to jail for being too cozy with a [fake] developer ... [And] when Chris Christie was elected in 2009, when Dawn Zimmer was elected in that special election in 2009, they were allies at first … She’s somebody who has not had a longtime ax to grind with him. Which I think makes her story a little bit more plausible.

The structure of [the legislators’ probe] … what do you make of the merits, or any nuances that have gotten missed about how that’s going to affect what kind of information comes out, and what kind of result we get?

They switched it … Now they are doing a single joint committee … In a way, they had to do it, because it was a recipe for chaos to have two separate committees. I guess the problem is: the Assembly side was a lot farther along than the Senate side … You had a real kind of professional operation established on the Assembly side. The concern that I’m hearing … is when you had joint committees in the past, the Assembly tends to get marginalized, and the Senate tends to take charge. But in this case … [it’s] the Assembly people who are a lot better positioned to run this investigation. So there is some fear that [Assemblyman John] Wisniewski will be a little bit marginalized by this …

That said, the thing I’m hearing is there’s a growing expectation down there that the U.S. attorney, at some point in the relatively near future, will step in and, basically, politely tell the Legislature, “You know, I got this one.”

And will that mean less information for the public for a while about this?

Yeah, I mean, if that plays out …

Christie, as a U.S. attorney, his office would leak stuff all the time. He was a very political U.S. attorney … Christie loved taking those [political corruption] cases on, and his office would leak stuff out. And [U.S. Attorney Paul] Fishman’s reputation is the complete opposite.

He’s shown not much of an appetite for these big public corruption cases. A real low-profile guy. Clearly no elected office ambitions that are known. The expectation is that if he comes in and takes this investigation over, nothing will come out of that office [to the media].

At this point, what do you think is the most plausible scenario -- or the least implausible scenario -- for how the decision was made to shut down those lanes?

I’ll dodge the question. Because I honestly, I don’t know. I have heard -- god, I’ve heard 150 different theories. It is still possible that it was just a gang of those four people — Bridget Kelly, [Bill] Stepien, Bill Baroni and David Wildstein — almost, you know, clowning around … I also think, you know, many, many other things, that would involve many, many more people and much higher stakes -- I think that’s also possible …

I just think the question still is out there — and the reason why this continues to generate so much media attention and public interest, because the basic question is still out there — [is] if it’s over the endorsement of the mayor of Fort Lee, that’s just so disproportionate. The stakes there are just so disproportionate to the level of risk that was being taken by the level of people we already know were involved.

It just feels like, because of that sort of basic disproportion, there has to be something else to this. Maybe there isn’t. But it just -- it just feels like there has to be something else. As these subpoenas come back, if they’re answered, and we learn that there were more and more people [who] were involved, then that only ratchets it up … That only amplifies the question of: Come on, what was he really trying to do here? What was really at stake here?

If that list of people who had knowledge of it grows, I think that question only builds too.

When’s the last time you personally heard from Chris Christie?

Years ago now … before he ran in ‘09. A few people around him have conveyed messages to me since then ...

Any messages you want to share?

I wrote a piece for Salon a while back, when he was starting to flirt with running for president, in 2011 … He had gotten into office in Morris County [in 1994] … He tried to make the next jump really fast. He tried to run for Legislature. It was a disaster …

So I had told the story in the context of Chris Christie running for president in 2012: It’s probably something that was on his mind … The last time he tried, you know, to fly too high, too fast — whatever the expression is — it blew up in his face. That maybe he would be more hesitant when it comes this time. I heard from somebody around him who basically told me I was on the right track.

And I wrote something, too, [in 2011] about his office in 2006 that leaked [Democrat Bob Menendez being under investigation] … about two months before the Menendez-Kean [U.S. Senate] election in 2006. That was the rare big Christie investigation of an elected official that never went anywhere … The timing was looking suspicious to people.

So I thought about it again a year or two ago … and I wrote about it again. And I heard from somebody around him who was not happy about it.

Josh Eidelson

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