During the height of the Watergate scandal in the mid-1970s, Republican Senator Howard Baker asked a defining two-part question about Richard Nixon’s role: “What did the President know and when did he know it?”
Those two questions may determine whether New Jersey Governor Chris Christie survives the scandal currently engulfing his administration.
Earlier today, we learned that two top Christie officials purposely closed two of three local lanes on the George Washington Bridge—the nation’s busiest—as political retribution against the Democratic mayor of the bridge’s New Jersey home, Fort Lee.
According to The Huffington Post:
Time for some traffic problems in Fort Lee,” [Christie] Deputy Chief of Staff Bridget Anne Kelly wrote in an email on Aug. 13.
“Got it,” replied David Wildstein, who was then one of Christie’s top officials at the Port Authority.
Their nefarious traffic jam plan was implemented on September 9th, the first day of school, and the delays were as bad as they had hoped. Two days later, this disgusting text exchange occurred between Kelly and Wildstein, as reported by The New York Times:
“Is it wrong that I am smiling?” Mr. Wildstein texted Ms. Kelly.
“No,” she texted back.
“I feel badly about the kids,” he texted.
“They are the children of Buono voters,” she said, referring to Mr. Christie’s Democratic opponent, Barbara Buono.
Not only were thousands of students late to school, workers late to work, and truckers late for deliveries, but emergency vehicles were delayed, reportedly resulting in a death.
Governor Christie denied that the traffic delays were politically motivated for months—until earlier today, when email evidence contradicted his claim. In a statement released late today, he expressed “outrage” over the incident and claimed he was misled by his staff.
Mr. Christie may be telling the truth. But if he is, his crisis management thus far has been staggeringly ineffective. As NBC’s Chuck Todd pointed out this evening, Mr. Christie rarely ducks from cameras. But tonight—and only after many hours had passed following the release of the emails—he finally issued a written statement. He canceled an event at which cameras would have been present.
The Governor would be well-advised to get in front of cameras immediately, make a strong statement that anyone involved in this incident should be prosecuted to the full extent of the law, and pledge to cooperate fully with any investigations into the matter. His failure to do that, fairly or not, will send a message that he has something to hide.
And even the perfect media statement may not be sufficient, as many will still view him as damaged goods, a feckless manager who couldn’t control his staff.
Still, calls for Christie’s resignation are premature. No evidence ties him directly to the lane closures yet, and politicians have survived scandals in which subordinates acted without consent. But Christie’s 2016 political fortunes—if not his tenure as governor—may well rest on the answers to those two Nixonian questions: what did he know and when did he know it?
What do you think? Please leave your thoughts in the comments section below.