Christopher Christie, New Jersey, Politics, U.S. Attorneys Offices

Governor Chris Christie Did What We All Should Have Expected From An Old Prosecutor

Unless you’re living under a rock or stuck in traffic on the George Washington Bridge,[1] you know that N.J. Governor Chris Christie spent yesterday digging himself out of the Fort Lee traffic scandal in the most Jersey of manner — by placing a proverbial bullet in the back of the neck of one of his most trusted allies Tony Soprano-style. He even invited the media over to the Bada-Bing for a couple of hours after he did it.

Deputy Chief of Staff Bridget Kelly took the rap for closing lanes on the GWB and creating a traffic snarl for Fort Lee residents after a smoking gun email emerged where the staffer seemingly ordered David Wildstein, himself a once highly-paid Christie staffer who resigned last month, to stop up the bridge to make life miserable for Fort Lee. The mayor of the town — a Democrat — had failed to fall in line and endorse the Republican Christie in his re-election campaign,[2] and Kelly’s email outlined the chosen means of retaliation. It seems dumb, but people may have died over this issue.

Liberal columnists are calling Christie basically an overfed Pol Pot and conservatives are comparing this — because they cherish beating their dead one-trick pony — to Benghazi.

But whether Christie was directly involved in this scandal or not — and so far the digital paper trail seems to begin with his mild-mannered aide showing uncharacteristic initiative and ends with a high school crony whom Christie put in charge of the bridge — this scandal falls somewhere between unsurprising and utterly inevitable.

Christie is a former prosecutor, serving as a U.S. Attorney from 2002 until 2008. The modern prosecutor is armed with the luxury to exact petty, brutal revenge on any and all who cross him or her, and this is the mentality that Christie brought into the Governor’s Mansion. Indeed, he made this mentality his political calling card.

Oh, and will this matter in 2016?

Yes, this will matter in 2016. Sort of. Or sort of not. Look, we’re getting ahead of ourselves.

Governor Christie screwed himself yesterday for exactly the reasons that Chuck Todd articulated:


Yeah… that’s going to be a pickle to overcome. But now that he’s a bystander, at least no one can suggest he’s responsible for the actions of his staff:

“‘If you do your job right, your staff reflects the personality of the governor,’ Christie said as he introduced his appointees at the State House. ‘I believe, for better or for worse, this staff will reflect my personal style of leadership and decision-making.’” [Bergen County Record, 12/4/09]

“For better or for worse”? Well, it’s for worse. As he said himself back in happier times, the people he surrounded himself with understood his personal decision-making and he made a point of constructing an atmosphere that encouraged his underlings to play politics with traffic flow even if he never gave the order.[3]

And that atmosphere flows directly from the arrogance of a prosecutorial office.

Chris Christie frigging loves being a prosecutor. He talks about it all the time. He gets off bullying journalists who ask him simple goddamned questions by pointing out that he’s a prosecutor:

That’s some first-class epic cowardice Jersey toughness right there. But that unabashed imperiousness is not just a product of Christie’s thuggery; rather, it flows from the modern prosecutor. More and more, society judges prosecutors by their ability to make public spectacles of securing big prison time for low-hanging fruit — even to the exclusion of taking on the harder cases. Acting as a neutral purveyor of justice has fallen so far to the wayside that defense lawyers are legitimately shocked when prosecutors adhere to their constitutional duties. They are the masters of their own little kingdoms, with nearly limitless power over the fates of all those who brush up against the criminal justice system in their domain. No wonder they get a little drunk with power.

Armed with extensive discretion and so many potential charges to bring, prosecutors can, and do, construct draconian threats by heaping additional and enhanced charges on defendants who refuse to play ball. Plea deals are no longer limited to “going up the chain,” as the masterminds of wrongdoing are now given deals to rat out their underlings for harsher punishment. Discussing The Wolf of Wall Street, Matt Kaiser notes:

But here’s what’s funky about the case — and about cooperation practice. Belfort built the firm. He was the architect of the fraud and the company. Yet he turns around and cooperates to put his henchman in prison.

The government was, in essence, making a deal with the devil to get Faust. Or to get a bunch of Fausts. I haven’t pulled the sentences, but I’d wager Belfort did a fair bit less time than his less culpable helpers.

The point of cooperation is supposed to be to move up the chain — to use information from less culpable people in order to get convictions of more culpable people. But, of course, in a stats driven world, an additional conviction counts, and restraint in how cooperation is used doesn’t.

Prosecutors are incentivized to use all of their vast power to get more people convicted, and they’re willing to use a bazooka to kill a cockroach if it advances that ball. Listen, I spent a lot of time working with current and former prosecutors. And whether I represented a cooperator working with the government or I was sitting on the same side as a defense lawyer freshly out of the prosecutor’s office, it always disturbed me how quickly they would leap to asking “how do we screw them?” over the most minor of slights.

When this is the model of success that propels you into office, how does one reset? In Christie’s case, he never eschewed this model of leadership. He may well have directly ordered these lane closures, but even if he didn’t, the mentality he has championed in his meteoric rise to prominence invited this sort of behavior. And now we’re supposed to be forgiving when he says his deputy acted alone when plotting to make life hell for someone unwilling to kowtow to the Governor’s overtures?

The fashionable question is to ask whether or not this scandal will torpedo Christie’s White House ambitions. After all, Christie was considered a favorite for the GOP nomination in 2016. The answer is that this specific event is not going to matter in the 2016 election, but what this episode says about Christie will loom over the short air-sucking sprint he’ll make for nation’s highest office. Just like the other famed prosecutor before him — Rudy Giuliani — Christie may make it to the 2016 primary season a prohibitive favorite for the nomination, but the same fate awaits the corpulent contender. When so-called “Middle America” sits down with these bombastic prosecutorial types, it profoundly doesn’t like them. Indeed, who was the last criminal prosecutor to reach the presidency? It goes back to before the modern era.

Or maybe “Middle America” just hates New York/New Jersey types. Which is fair. In either event, Chris Christie will be able to lord over his Garden State fiefdom well beyond 2016.

[1] Abbreviated sometimes as the “GWB,” which is ridiculous because that’s just as long as the alternative. Seriously, count the syllables. I’ll wait.
[2] Or maybe it all had to do with state Supreme Court nominations.
[3] While we’re at it, this scandal has been percolating for months and Christie never bothered to dig into it until yesterday? And then he managed to conduct an open-and-shut investigation in an hour? Even continuing under the premise that Christie had nothing to do with this, that smacks of being an accessory after the fact.

Bridget Kelly, David Wildstein, who had deep ties to Gov. Christie, unemployed by Bridgegate [New York Daily News]
Prosecutors: Sleep more soundly by giving police reports to the defense [Katz Justice]

Putting People In Prison To Get To The Cool Kids’ Table
Judge Rakoff On Prosecutors’ Motives, DOJ’s Explanations, And The Lack Of High-Level Prosecutions Following The Financial Meltdown
Lessons (For White-Collar Practitioners) From The Wolf Of Wall Street

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