Three weeks ago, a humbled Chris Christie apologized for the bridge scandal that had engulfed his administration, professing ignorance but unequivocally shouldering the blame.
"I am responsible for what happens under my watch, the good and the bad," he said.
So much for that. In a swift about-face, he's distancing himself from his former allies, and only making himself look worse in the process.
On Friday, a lawyer for Christie's former top Port Authority official, David Wildstein, who personally oversaw the lane closures on the George Washington Bridge that led to days of gridlock, claimed Christie knew all along about the scandal. Facing legal troubles for his role in the incident, Wildstein certainly has a motive to turn on his old boss in the hopes of receiving more lenient treatment from investigators. And though his lawyer claimed there was evidence proving that Christie lied about the extent of his involvement, he did not provide any.
Given all that, Christie could have simply dismissed the allegation as baseless, a desperate last gasp from a doomed official. Instead, in a furious memo, he went nuclear on Wildstein's character and credibility with five bizarre accusations:
- "As a 16-year-old kid, he sued over a local school board election."
- "He was publicly accused by his high school social studies teacher of deceptive behavior."
- "He had a controversial tenure as Mayor of Livingston."
- "He was an anonymous blogger known as Wally Edge."
- "He had a strange habit of registering web addresses for other people's names without telling them."
The memo goes on to assail Wildstein's tenure at the Port Authority, concluding, "David Wildstein will do and say anything to save David Wildstein."
Never mind that Christie isn't doing his credibility any favors by reaching back to high school to attack Wildstein's character. Here's the main thing: If Wildstein has been a bad egg his entire adult life, is a horrible government official, and should never be trusted, then why did Christie appoint him in the first place?
Christie has not only called into question his executive judgment, but also his abilities as a manager. "Is Christie's defense that, having surrounded himself with vengeful incompetents, he had no idea what his subordinates were doing, and therefore he deserves a pass?" asks Bloomberg Businessweek's Paul M. Barrett.
Furthermore, the spat only underscores the fact that Christie has a patronage problem in the Port Authority. He's reportedly appointed some 80 loyalists to cushy jobs within the agency. As for Wildstein, he was not some bad apple who happened to find himself in a position of authority. He was a close Christie ally, described as the governor's "eyes and ears" within the agency.
Moreover, Christie's heated pushback further enshrines his image as a ruthless pugilist — the very characterization he's sought to slough off throughout this ordeal. If he can spit out a nasty bit of character assassination on his former crony in just a few hours, what would he do to others who oppose him?
Christie's Republican defenders have argued that unless the governor actually ordered the lane closures, he's not really at fault.
"As long as there is no smoking gun, then this becomes just another situation where a chief executive has people working for him that do things that are foolish," former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani said.
But that reasoning rings hollow compared to the Republican outrage over the supposed Benghazi and IRS scandals, both of which have been panned for being GOP witch hunts. To claim that President Obama is to blame for how some in the IRS behaved, or that Hillary Clinton is responsible for every misstep the State Department made, you cannot then absolve Christie for what his close aide and political pals did without coming off as hypocritical.
With the state investigation into the scandal just getting started — thousands of pages of subpoenaed documents are to be turned over today — the story isn't about to go away. And even if Christie is exonerated of any direct culpability in the lane closure scheming, he'll still guilty be of terrible judgment.