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

In Defense Of Chris Christie

I do have some caveats to offer. First, and quite obviously, I’m not an objective observer — I know Chris Christie, I like him, and I feel grateful towards him. Second, perhaps pointing in the opposite direction, we haven’t been in touch in years (not counting Twitter, where we follow each other — see @GovChristie and @DavidLat) — so the Christie of today might be different from the man I remember. Third, although I know a number of people who work with him — his administration is filled with people he brought over from the U.S.A.O., such as chief of staff Kevin O’Dowd, chief counsel Charlie McKenna, deputy chief counsel Paul Matey, press secretary Michael Drewniak — there are many more people I don’t know, including some of the key players in Bridgegate (Bridget Anne Kelly, David Wildstein, Bill Baroni).

So here’s my take. I’ll start with what I posted on Twitter and Facebook during Governor Christie’s big press conference last week:

A nice job by my former boss, Governor Chris Christie — candid and super-apologetic. Impressive that he’s taking questions at this press conference; a lot of politicians mid-scandal will avoid Q&A after prepared statements. But if conflicting information comes out about his role or knowledge, then it’s over.

Along similar lines, here’s a more detailed and eloquent comment that one of my former colleagues in the office, Eric Jaso of Seeger Weiss, posted to Facebook. Eric remains in touch with the governor — he was appointed by Christie to serve as a public member of the New Jersey Urban Enterprise Zone Authority, and he worked on the Christie re-election campaign — so I’m glad to see that we are on the same page:

Having digested the last 48 hours of Chris Christie media, here’s my take as someone who has known the man personally and professionally for over a decade. His press conference was admirable in that he was genuinely contrite, took personal responsibility (something woefully rare in politicians these days), and tellingly did not attempt to leave “wiggle room” in his statements and explanations (e.g., “I have nothing to hide” and “I had no involvement and didn’t know about, condone or order” the bridge lane closure). In doing so, he left himself no “out” whatsoever if information later comes to light that he did in fact know about and/or condone these reprehensible acts. He was also visibly and understandably upset at having his trust violated by his close aides — he does indeed consider those in his leadership circle to be “family.” Knowing him personally, and having seen him in a whole range of circumstances over the years both public and private, I believe he was being open, truthful and sincere….

That being said, it appears obvious that he unfortunately created an atmosphere where some people high up in his administration felt they could engage in ham-handed political retribution against perceived political enemies without regard for the collateral damage to their constituents (regardless of party affiliation) or apparent fear of getting caught, and I suspect he is doing some serious soul searching about that. In sum, the Chris Christie I saw on television yesterday is the one that I know, in his heart a good and honest man, ambitious yes, but singularly devoted to doing what is right and improving this State and our Nation. I, along with many, many others who have served under his leadership, will be heartbroken if it turns out that our faith and trust has been misplaced.

Here are a few more thoughts, largely triggered by the Governor’s press conference (which was impressively long — perhaps too long, but it did send a message of “I have nothing to hide”).

First, as he noted last Thursday, Governor Christie is loyal to his people (if anything, too loyal). As I learned firsthand, he does not fire people lightly. So the fact that he fired Bridget Kelly and forced out campaign manager Bill Stepien showed how angry and betrayed he felt. He does treat the people who work for him like family — he personally attended practically every farewell party for an AUSA while I was in the office — and in return, he expects honesty within the family.

Second, he is not a micromanager — which lends credence to his claim that he had no personal knowledge of the lane closings at the George Washington Bridge being used for political retaliation. He delegates a lot, and he trusts a lot (even if some people, such as Chuck Todd, viewed Christie as having touted himself as hands-on).

I worked in the Appeals Division, and I don’t think Christie knew about any of my cases — or, for that matter, any of the cases handled by the other appellate lawyers. Granted, it was a quiet time for the unit when I was in office; we didn’t have anything like the big affirmative appeals seeking to get Judge Bill Martini kicked off cases, for example. But it is fair to say that, in general, Christie let people do their jobs. He paid attention to some individual Special Prosecution (public corruption) cases, but overall he did not get involved in individual case management.

Third, I respectfully dissent from my colleague Joe Patrice’s take that this is just another example of an overzealous, power-hungry prosecutor. We argued about this in the office last Thursday, and I agree more with Elie Mystal, who views Bridgegate as less of a “prosecutorial” scandal and more of a “local politics” scandal. Messing with traffic patterns is just the kind of petty, dirty revenge that you see people take out on each other in local politics. The U.S.A.O. alumni currently working for the Governor, at least the ones I know, are not vengeful or super-punitive types; if anything, D.N.J. is known for being less aggressive in charging than the other area U.S. Attorney’s Offices (namely, S.D.N.Y. and E.D.N.Y.). Finally, note that the member of the Christie administration most involved in the scandal, Bridget Anne Kelly, is not a lawyer and did not come over from the U.S. Attorney’s Office; instead, she rose up through (the swamp of) local Jersey politics.

Finally, assuming that nothing else comes out and that he survives this scandal — and early polling, both in New Jersey and nationally, suggests that he will — Chris Christie could actually be strengthened by Bridgegate. If a chastened Christie learns from what he has described as an “humiliating” experience and as a result “nicens” up — i.e., becomes less bullying in his demeanor (he denies being a bully, but there’s no denying that his demeanor sometimes can be bullying) — it could actually make him a softer, warmer, and therefore more appealing candidate. I do agree with Joe’s take that voters generally don’t like angry, finger-wagging prosecutor types. If Bridgegate turns into a “come to Jesus” moment for a humbled Christie, making him less like Rudy Giuliani and more like George W. Bush (in the 2000 election), the timing would be perfect. Even if the 2016 election sometimes feels like it’s just around the corner, it’s still a ways away, and there’s just enough time for Christie 2.0 to roll himself out to the electorate.

And that’s my take on Bridgegate and my former boss, Chris Christie. I offer it somewhat tentatively, with the caveat that it’s based on the information that’s currently available; please don’t view it as a swaggering, confident, “I worked the cones” pronouncement. Revelations and developments may take place that completely upend this assessment — a lesson that Governor Christie learned the hard way.

The Bench: SCOTUS Watch [New Yorker]
Mystery of Gossipy Blog on the Judiciary Is Solved [New York Times]
In the Loop: Benched [Washington Post]
He Fought the Law. They Both Won. [New York Times]
How Gossip Transformed the Legal Industry [Details]
New Jerseyans Think Christie’s Hiding Something, and Love Him Anyways [The Wire]

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

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