Former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie has a new book out and has been making the talk show rounds to rehab his image in apparent preparation for a 2024 run for president. Everyone seems to have forgotten “Bridgegate,” the plot to cause traffic jams at one of the busiest bridges in the world to punish a New Jersey mayor for not endorsing Christie’s 2013 reelection run, which he won in a landslide. Here’s a reminder.
Chris Christie and Bridgegate 1/10/2014
by H.B. Koplowitz
When New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie said “I am not a bully” during Thursday’s marathon news conference, he seemed to be channeling his inner Nixon. Once upon a time, another chief executive embroiled in a scandal, President Richard M. Nixon, told the American people, “I’m not a crook.” It turns out that Nixon was a crook, so it’s curious why Christie would use the same phrasing.
Parallels abound between what has become known as Bridgegate, and the original gate, the Watergate scandal. Both involve chief executives accused of abuse of power and a cover-up, with the central question being what did they know and when did they know it. If history is repeating itself, Gov. Christie will eventually resign in disgrace.
The Watergate scandal began on June 17, 1972, when five men were caught trying to bug the Democratic headquarters at the Watergate complex in Washington, D.C. Bridgegate began on Sept. 9, 2013, when the Port Authority closed two of three local access lanes to the George Washington Bridge in Fort Lee, New Jersey, causing gridlock throughout the city.
President Nixon was going to win re-election in a landslide against Democratic Sen. George McGovern of South Dakota, just as Christie knew he was going to be re-elected handily. But to beef up his presidential credentials, he wanted to “run up the score,” in part by spending $24 million of state money to hold a special election to fill a vacant Senate slot, so popular Democrat Cory Booker wouldn’t be on the same ballot.
In Watergate, the cover-up began with stonewalling, as Nixon spokesman Ron Ziegler tried to laugh off the break-in, calling it a “third-rate burglary.” In Bridgegate, the cover-up began with officials blaming the lane closure on a non-existent traffic study, and the governor laughing off his involvement, quipping he was “working the cones.”
In Watergate, two dogged reporters from the Washington Post, Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein, followed the money from the burglars to Nixon’s campaign fund, triggering congressional and judicial investigations. In Bridgegate, two dogged reporters from the Bergen Record, John Cichowski and Shawn Boburg, traced the lane closures to a Christie appointee, triggering legislative and judicial investigations.
In Watergate, there were allegations of an enemies list, dirty tricks and a unit within the White House that retaliated against political foes, including the break-in of “Pentagon Papers” leaker Daniel Ellsburg’s psychiatrist’s office. In Bridgegate, there are allegations of operatives in the Governor’s Office who retaliated against political foes, including the 9/11 of political pranks, the week-long traffic snarl in a city whose mayor, Democrat Mark Sokolich, had declined to endorse Republican Christie in his re-election bid.
The Watergate scandal exploded when the existence of a secret taping system in the Oval Office was revealed. Nixon attempted a “limited hang-out,” releasing expurgated transcripts of the tapes, which were damning enough to ramp up the scandal. Bridgegate exploded when the existence of texts and emails between the Port Authority and the Governor’s Office were revealed. Officials released redacted copies of the communications, including one in which Christie’s deputy chief of staff, Bridget Anne Kelly, tells David Wildstein, a high school friend of Christie and appointee to the Port Authority, “Time for some traffic problems in Fort Lee,” and he replies, “Got it,” ramping up the scandal.
In Watergate, Nixon blamed the wrongdoing on his aides while denying he had personal knowledge. In Bridgegate, Christie did the same.
In Watergate, Nixon fired senior advisers implicated in the scandal, including John Dean, H.R. Halderman, John Ehrlichman and the “big enchilada,” Attorney General John Mitchell. In Bridgegate, Wildstein and another Port Authority Christie appointee implicated in the scandal, Bill Baroni, resigned, and Christie fired Kelly and withdrew his support for two-time campaign manager Bill Stepien to become head of the state Republican Party.
In an effort to derail the Watergate investigation, Nixon fired Attorney General Elliot Richardson and Deputy Attorney General William Ruckelshaus when they refused to fire independent special prosecutor Archibald Cox, which became known as the Saturday Night Massacre. In Bridgegate, Christie bodaciously nominated his chief of staff, Kevin O’Dowd — Kelly’s former boss — to become the next state attorney general, who would be in charge of any state investigation of the scandal.
In Watergate, Nixon held an emotional news conference during which he said, “I’m not a crook.” In Bridgegate, an “embarrassed and humiliated” Christie told reporters “I am not a bully.”
If history continues to repeat itself, the un-redacted communications will be revealed, and they will include a “smoking gun” implicating the governor. There will be more revelations, more investigations and more hearings, in which former and current Christie aides will be put under oath to either take the Fifth or give self-serving testimony. Some of them will spill the beans and some will go to prison. Impeachment proceedings will crank up, and realizing he lacks the votes to win, Christie will resign, be pardoned by his successor, and New Jersey’s statewide nightmare will finally be over.