In a new episode of Political Wire's podcast, we spoke to legal analyst Jeffrey Toobin about the legal implications of scandals plaguing New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie (R), particularly the ongoing investigations into his administration's closure of lanes on the George Washington Bridge. Toobin recently penned a column for the New Yorker on how Christie has a long road ahead in Bridgegate.
Here are five takeaways:
1. The bridge scandal is not as bad as Watergate and Iran-Contra: In terms of how the scandal's legal and political fallout is proceeding, Bridgegate does bear some resemblance to past scandals such as Watergate, Whitewater, and the Iran-Contra affair; for Bridgegate has also prompted both legislative and federal investigations. But in other senses, Bridgegate is no Watergate, Toobin said: "I certainly believe that in the magnitude and importance of the scandal, it is not there and it will probably never be there."
2. The mere existence of a criminal investigation doesn't mean any crimes were committed: Political observers may be quick to speculate wildly about the implications of a federal grand jury probe into Bridgegate. But the closure of lanes, though perhaps troubling both politically and ethically, isn't necessarily criminal. That doesn't mean the scandal isn't worth looking into, Toobin said, "but for all the people who are hyperventilating about this, I'm not clear at all that a crime took place." If the federal investigation doesn't lead to charges, none of the information it collected will become public.
Another thing is worth noting, Toobin said: Prosecutors can grant immunity to persuade reluctant witnesses or suspects into cooperating, whereas legislative investigators lack that power. If the federal probe yields no charges, the legislative investigators and the public may never hear some crucial insights into what actually happened in Bridgegate.
3. Tensions could emerge between the legislative and federal investigations: Lawmakers may release information from their probe to the public regularly, or aides may leak some of it. But ultimately the stakes are far higher in the federal investigation, given the potential for criminal charges. And as a result, criminal probes tend to go far slower as investigators try to assemble all their information first. So far no clear conflicts have emerged between the investigations. But the faster pace of the legislative probe and the prospect of leaks from it have the potential to create headaches for federal investigators as a result, Toobin said.
4. No matter what Christie aides' lawyers may say, the Fourth Amendment probably doesn't apply here: A couple of high-profile Christie aides might not only take the Fifth Amendment, which lets people protect themselves from self-incrimination. Their lawyers also have called for lawmakers to withdraw document subpoenas on the basis of the Fourth Amendment, which the lawyers claim provides a constitutional privacy right that extends to overly broad document subpoenas. It's unlikely that the Fourth Amendment protects them here, Toobin said: "I don't think any courts have bought that theory. This is about taking the Fifth. And I think that's just some posturing by their lawyers."
5. Media scrutiny of Christie may bring conservative Republicans to his side, but overall the scandal is still bad for him: Buried in an NBC/Wall Street Journal poll that otherwise had bad news for Christie was a finding that support for him among core Republicans had actually increased. Staunch conservatives have tended to view Christie as not conservative enough. But some of them may have warmed to him in light of a common enemy, a mainstream media that these conservatives view as being overly hostile to a fellow Republican. Said Toobin: "It's quite obvious what happened there: 'The enemy of my enemy is my friend.'" Somewhat ironically, then, the media coverage of the scandal could help Christie politically in the short term, should he seek the GOP presidential nomination in 2016. As for the bigger picture: "I don't think anybody is kidding themselves that this is somehow going to help him," Toobin said.
Listen to the whole thing here: