Media Dismiss Chris Christie Aide Wildstein's Evidence Claim at Own Risk
New Jersey Governor Chris Christie's high school classmate and former senior adviser is causing a stir with the claim that evidence exists linking Christie to the now months-old bridge scandal in suburban Fort Lee. The media have been quick to dismiss the evidence, citing Wildstein's character, but do so at their own risk.
Wildstein, the former Port Authority official personally responsible for closing the George Washington Bridge last September in what is believed to be a move for political retribution, has been requesting his legal fees paid and prosecutorial immunity since the start of the New Jersey Legislature's investigations. Attorney Alan Zegas wrote to the Port Authority this weekend once again requesting aid in payment of Wildstein's legal bills and indemnity for any civil suits from Fort Lee residents stuck in traffic.
In doing so, however, he made sure to note that his client has enough evidence to provide that such legal fees will be worth it for the Port Authority. Zegas first notes that the Port Authority is still considering a request from another Port Authority figure involved in Bridgegate, Bill Baroni, for payment of his legal fees. Baroni, unlike Wildstein, testified before the New Jersey Legislature during the first round of investigative hearings, but said that the lanes were shut down for a traffic study, a claim since debunked. This, Zegas argues, should be enough to disqualify Baroni from having his legal fees paid.
Inside baseball about Port Authority legal fees aside, Zegas calls the bridge lane closing a "Christie administration decision," citing Bridget Kelly's email to Wildstein. He also claims "evidence exists as well tying Mr. Christie to having knowledge of the lane closures, during the period when the lanes were closed, contrary to what the Governor stated publicly in a two-hour press conference." Zegas concludes that Wildstein "contests the accuracy of various statements that the Governor made about him," but can only prove "the inaccuracy of some."
What Wildstein's attorney is saying in this letter is not to be taken lightly, and should be divided into three pieces:
- Somewhere out there "evidence exists" that Christie knew the lanes were closed when they were closed.
- Wildstein disagrees with "various statements" made during Christie's two-hour press conference about him.
- Wildstein can prove that some statements Christie made at the press conference were inadequate.
The media and others involved were quick to dismiss the letter as puffery from a devious character looking to score immunity before he gets hoisted off to jail. On Meet the Press this weekend, David Gregory noted that Wildstein has given the New Jersey legislature 900 pages of documents, none of which provide the evidence against Christie he claims exists. Fort Lee Mayor Mark Sokolich, who once declared on national television that Wildstein "deserves an ass-kicking," suggested Wildstein's letter had serious "credibility issues." The Daily Beast's Michael Daly described Wildstein as a scorned "groupie" trying his best to hurt his former boss. Even in attacking Christie, the Washington Post's Chris Cillizza sees a valid argument to argue that Wildstein is merely trying to "save himself."
Indeed, there is reason to doubt. The New York Times did not help, initially describing the letter as claiming Wildstein had the evidence that Christie knew, which Zegas never claims. They since changed the headline and text of the story and made the ludicrous claim that it was good journalism to change articles after publishing "dozens" of times without noting the changes. Moreover, there is Wildstein's character itself.
Yet Wildstein has enough of a history with the Governor to merit attention, at the very least.
The difference between the way the national media is treating Wildstein and the way native New Jersey reporters are tell the whole story. At the Star-Ledger, Tom Moran notes that Wildstein was a "loyal member of the palace guard" and an old friend, someone close enough to Christie to know the truth. He was also someone close enough to believe that he wouldn't be thrown under the bus, he argues. "He lost his job, he was personally humiliated, and he faces financial ruin – all because he obeyed orders," Moran argues, adding, "...those who are spurned are dangerous. They know secrets."
At the Bergen Record, Alfred Doblin takes a similar approach to Wildstein. "A spurned lover is a dangerous and unpredictable adversary. A spurned lover armed with documentation could be deadly," he argues. He notes that Wildstein will not "fall on his sword for anyone... and Chris Christie has no one to blame but himself" if he loses out for it.
Perhaps the deference to Wildstein in New Jersey media comes from a keener understanding of what sort of secrets are shared between aides and governors. Perhaps it comes from Wildstein's being a legendary figure in New Jersey media himself – the acclaimed "Wally Edge" of PolitickerNJ.com, the man responsible for giving Steve Kornacki his first break. Perhaps it comes from having covered Wildstein's career for years and knowing that his job at the Port Authority was specially created for him, that he was meant to be Christie's "eyes and ears" at the agency. Wildstein is more to them than a rat on a sinking ship.
That is not to say that Wildstein is an especially righteous or trustworthy figure – far from it. Nor is it to say that Zegas's letter is kryptonite to any argument exonerating Christie. While so ad hominem as to be borderline laughable, the email Christie's office sent supporters does mention a number of truths about Wildstein that should be taken into account. Wildstein has a reputation for being a somewhat devious political operative.
Wildstein has nothing to lose and everything to gain from handing Christie over to the investigative committee. That does not dismiss the fact that he is one of the few people who was close enough to Christie to know the truth.