Chris Christie (Reuters/Carlo Allegri)

Christie's naked CPAC ploy: How he hopes to dodge a scandal by sucking up to the right

A master at manipulating media narratives, the governor wants to evade tough scrutiny. But major questions persist



Robert Hennelly
March 6, 2014 9:25PM (UTC)

As the local U.S. attorney's office and the FBI continue their "Bridgegate" probe, Chris Christie is in National Harbor, Md., today pressing the flesh at the Conservative Political Action Conference with other 2016 hopefuls. CPAC, of course, is the same group that left Christie off its list invitees last year after he earned the ire of GOP loyalists for his post-Sandy embrace of President Obama just days before the 2012 general election.

So what changed? Christie's poll numbers continue to drop. Many pundits have written Christie off for 2016. And yet, there he is on the national stage today using the media's scrutiny of him and his administration as a way to establish his credibility with right-wing power brokers who snubbed him just a year ago.

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In short, the media continues to underestimate Christie’s powerful ability to create his own media narrative. Not since Nixon-Agnew has a politician so adroitly used so much of America's disdain for the "liberal" media to deflect tough questions. In essence, Christie's second chance with CPAC is largely due to the fact that MSNBC hosts like Rachel Maddow and Steve Kornacki have pressed on with the "Bridgegate"  story.

Christie is a master of finding running room where others see just a dead end. His embrace of Obama and blasting of Speaker John Boehner over stalling on Sandy aid helped expand his base to include Jersey independents and Reagan Democrats, assuring his massive victory margin last year. His 2012 Obama play helped insure the president would not come to New Jersey to campaign for Christie's Democratic opponent Barbara Buono. In both gambits, Christie's stone-cold pragmatism assured he would find the sweet spot where his actions served both the state's public interest and his longer-term political ambitions.

Scroll forward to this week and Christie is blaming the Obama administration for massive problems with the delivery of long-stalled Sandy relief. This is a large man who knows how to pirouette.

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Christie Blames Slow Sandy Recovery on Federal Government,” trumpets a headline from the Wall Street Journal this week. Gov. Christie brilliantly used yet another town hall meeting in Toms River to deflect the outrage of long-suffering Sandy victims by blaming Washington for their prolonged misery.

Nowhere in the WSJ dispatch on the Christie town hall is there any reference to the fact that the Christie administration's own dysfunctional recovery efforts have been plagued by canceled multimillion-dollar Sandy rebuilding contracts. The largest canceled rebuilding contract for $68 million was with a firm that WNYC reported got the state work after it made a $25,000 contribution to the Republican Governors Association, which Christie chairs and which has plowed over a million dollars into his campaigns.

So far, in the day to day battle, Gov. Christie’s decision to take the conversation back to the town halls has bought him time. I have been to dozens of these, and while there is evidence of platinum-standard advance work, anybody can walk into these events. Christie continues to hype the fact that in three town halls since "Bridgegate" broke open in January, no one from the public has asked him about the scandal. His well-oiled cyber media squad also ensures his version of reality gets directly to his national fan base without any fourth estate filter.

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Yet, several weeks into his post “Bridgegate” strategy, Gov. Christie has not made much progress in defusing the nagging open question that casts a long shadow over him, his future and the state he governs. Left unanswered, it will fester like a splinter, as well as keep him vulnerable to the next leaked or publicly released damaging disclosure that contradicts his public declarations of innocence.

Gov. Christie has either lied and was complicit in the lane closures or was oblivious to them and the extensive machinations around them. The third possibility is that he was unaware of the plan to do the lane closures, but participated in a coverup after the fact.

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Narrative is key here. Dates really matter. The national clock for this scandal is set from when Gov. Christie did his January 2014  mea-culpa-thon when he admitted that, contrary to his past statements, his top aides were involved in orchestrating  the lane closures from Sept. 9 through the 12th of last year.

From when they occurred, they were the focus of the local print press led by the Bergen Record. State legislators Sen. Loretta Weinberg and Assemblyman Gordon Johnson went to public meetings of the Board of Commissioners of the Port Authority, which runs the bridge and whose politically connected police force actually executed the closures. Weinberg and Johnson were stonewalled by the bi-state authority that rides roughshod over the public and their elected officials.

Thanks to the 1921 act of Congress that created the bi-state agency, they enjoy actual sovereign immunity not unlike that held by the Vatican.

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Back in October the controversy was ripe enough that Christie’s Democratic opponent Barbara Buono raised it when, during a face-to-face debate with Christie, she was made to account for the 50 Democratic elected officials who had defected from her to Christie. “If you can’t lead your own party, how can you lead the state?” she was asked.

“Gov. Christie represents the worst combination of bully and bossism and that’s what has motivated some of these elected Democrats to support him,” Buono charged. As Exhibit A, Buono referenced the September GWB lane closures in Fort Lee where, “lo and behold,” the mayor is a Democrat who did not endorse the governor.

Back then, without the frame of reference of Christie staffer Bridget Kelly’s August email ordering up the Fort Lee traffic coronary, Buono looked like she was a losing candidate who was at the end of her rope trying to convince the public of a vast conspiracy only she could see. The Christie campaign called such a linkage “crazy.”

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Almost a month after the election Gov. Christie continued to give voice to the now discredited cover story offered by his operatives that the lane closures were related to a legitimate traffic study, which career Port Authority officials testified generated no paperwork and was done without advance warning to local authorities.

“The fact that one town has three lanes dedicated to it, that kind of gets me sauced,” said Gov. Christie  at the beginning of December as the investigations into the closures ramped up.    

So far, since his January press conference, the governor’s strategy has been to avoid taking direct questions on the subject and dismiss the topic as the obsession of liberal reporters and their editors, who unlike the governor, are out of touch with the day-to-day concerns of regular folks.

When a direct question does get through, as it did earlier this month on NJ 101.5’s "Ask the Governor," the governor puts off the day of reckoning to when his own internal probe is completed and “all of this stuff will come out over the appropriate period of time.” But in the meantime Christie insists he is not “going to  give in to the hysteria or questions that are given by folks who have information today that I did not have at the time.”

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Almost six months since Fort Lee’s ambulance and other first responder calls were delayed by the massive traffic jam (on the 12th anniversary of the Sept. 11 attack) we don’t know why. Hopefully our regional and national law enforcement officials have a quicker turnaround on their investigations into any potential terrorist attacks.

The thought that in the age of sequester any FBI agents have to be detailed to sort out this sordid mess is its own scandal.

The tragic irony here is that back in September, the Port Authority and the political crew that manipulated it put the innocent people of Fort Lee and the region at risk. The fact it is taking so long to get to the bottom of it only compounds the original offense. What if there had been a terrorist attack or massive fire anywhere near the George Washington Bridge (the subject of a foiled terrorist plot in the 1990s that is under constant patrol by the NYPD) during the four-day traffic siege?

A highly placed Republican source says that the pending internal report commissioned by the governor to be issued by high-powered lawyer Randy Mastro is Christie’s last chance to have a meaningful reset on Bridgegate. The governor’s press office won’t put a fixed date on its release.

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Meanwhile, the governor has to hope and pray that the office of U.S. Attorney Paul Fishman, who is investigating Bridgegate and its progeny, is less leak-prone than when Christie held down the same federal prosecutor’s job.

Back then, the media regularly cited anonymous “federal law enforcement sources” when they described details of a federal criminal probe like the sensitive one of Democratic Sen. Robert Menendez that ultimately went nowhere, but certainly muddied the campaign season waters when the planted media reports surfaced.

As he steps to the microphone today at CPAC, you can be sure Christie is mindful of all of this.


Robert Hennelly

MORE FROM Robert Hennelly


Related Topics ------------------------------------------

2016 2016 Elections Chris Christie Cpac George Washington Bridge Gop New Jersey Scandal The Right

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