During the 1973 Watergate hearings, Howard Baker, the Republican Senate leader and a close ally of the Nixon White House, asked repeatedly, "What did the president know and when did he know it?" This was and continues to be widely seen as the definitive way to establish a political leader's innocence or guilt of misdeeds within his administration. And so the question is now being echoed in the case of New Jersey Governor Chris Christie, in particular on television -- it has even led a national network news broadcast. This is a big break for Christie.
Christie himself has helped set up this question -- leading reporters on a merry chase to pin down precisely what he knew when about the infamous closing of two of the three traffic lanes leading into the George Washington Bridge from Fort Lee, New Jersey for four days last September. According to the received wisdom, if Christie was found to have participated in the plotting or to have known at the time why the lanes were closed, it would make all the difference in assessing his culpability. Deliberately or not, the governor's fingerprints weren't on the order to close the lanes, which was given in code -- "time for some traffic problems in Fort Lee" -- by his deputy chief of staff to his special appointee to the Port Authority, who replied, "Got it."
But this isn't really the issue. The issue is whether the governor can be held accountable for what happened at very high levels in his administration.
Christie has already had to walk back his assertion in January that he didn't know about the closures either beforehand or while they were in effect, which would seem to have required willful ignorance of an event that was drawing a lot of attention in his state; but later he said he didn't know about the closings prior to their taking place. Despite contemporaneous news accounts, and desperate attempts by the mayor of Fort Lee to reach him, and by some of his top allies to prevent disclosure to the public of the controversy, Christie insists he knew nothing until The Wall Street Journal published an angry email from the New York-appointed director of the Port Authority, to New Jersey officials in the agency, saying that the closings involved illegalities and that the director was going to reverse them. But the story of the email didn't appear until October 1, almost a full month after the closings. And yet on another occasion, Christie said that he had first learned about the closures in September, after the lanes were reopened. (The state legislature is looking into the testimony of a Christie appointee at the Port Authority that the purpose of the closure was to conduct a traffic study -- under suspicion that this was part of a cover-up. Anyway, what was the point of the study? You close lanes, you get a traffic jam.)
Christie is widely described as a hands-on governor. Yet according to him, he was oblivious of a transportation crisis that backed up traffic for miles over four days, and risked people's health, their livelihoods, their kids getting to school; he brushed it all off, saying that there's often a lot of traffic in New Jersey and that the back up "didn't rise to the gubernatorial level." His first public reaction was insouciance: "I was working the cones." It was ridiculous for the press to even be bringing up such a mundane subject. By his account, this man who is clearly not to be messed with had been duped by his staff.
Christie, who often says a little too much when he talks, also remarked last December that the fact that the tiny town of Fort Lee, population 36,000, has three "dedicated lanes, that kind of gets me sauced." In fact, the lanes are open to anyone in the area. Christie claimed he hadn't known about the dedicated lanes until after the closings, but why was he so worked up about them afterward? Since he was angry at Fort Lee's mayor, is it out of the question that he said something along those lines to his aides earlier?
The governor would be more stupid than he seems if he hadn't established plausible deniability of any direct part in the affair. Could it be that the mayor of Fort Lee was Christie's "turbulent priest"? At the least it's evident that his aides didn't fear the governor's wrath if he found out what they were doing.
Nixon was a master of misdirection and deniability: directing John Dean to prepare a report for the public about the White House role in the Watergate affair, Nixon said, "You have got to maintain the presidency out of this." When he fired chief of staff Bob Haldeman and top domestic advisor John Ehrlichman, on June 30, 1973, Nixon said he hadn't learned that his staff had been involved in the Watergate cover-up until May 25 of that year -- though he had discussed it with Haldeman three days after the burglars were caught, when Nixon returned from his Key Biscayne vacation home. (The tapes were rolling and as it happens this is the conversation from which eighteen and a half minutes were deleted; the evidence was that this was probably by Nixon himself.) He also announced that he had asked his staff to get to the bottom of the scandal and that he would cooperate with prosecutors. Christie said remarkably similar things in early January when he announced firing of some of his top aides and allies.
On the basis of what we know and what seems conceivable, Christie is not Nixon -- Nixon's personality made him a unique figure in our politics. Nor does it appear that Christie's administration engaged in the abuse of power to the extent that the Nixon White House did. But there does seem to be a pattern in Christie's activities that have now come under scrutiny, and indications of corruption on a scale that could be unprecedented even for New Jersey, a state known for corruption. Christie has morphed from a "bully" into a man who has governed by creating an atmosphere of fear and retribution.
Contrary to the widely-held view, the lane closings may not have resulted just from the failure of Fort Lee's mayor to support Christie's reelection last fall -- many other Democratic mayors had endorsed Christie under pressure, as the would-be next president attempted to dazzle the nation with his wide bipartisan support. Another reason was perhaps a construction project on which the mayor and the governor were at odds. Construction projects, which involve big money, seem to run through other Christie controversies, including the charge by the mayor of Hoboken that she was pressured by Christie aides to approve a project supported by one of the governor's most important backers, the attorney David Samson (whom Christie had appointed to head the Port Authority). The mayor, Dawn Zimmer, charged that Christie aides had made the town's receipt of Hurricane Sandy relief funds contingent on her support of the project. She held out, and Hoboken, 80 percent of whose buildings were flooded by the hurricane, has received paltry relief money. Now the matter is the subject of a federal investigation.
Richard Nixon; drawing by David Levine
There's a lot going on here. First of all, the Port Authority, which was established in the Progressive Era, in 1921, to foster cooperative management of transportation facilities by New York and New Jersey, and rid their management of corruption and political interference, has drifted considerably from its original mandate. With power over bridges and tunnels that connect New York and New Jersey, as well as six airports (including LaGuardia and JFK), seaports, a bus terminal, and a railroad system, along with the World Trade Center, it is a gigantic enterprise with a multi-billion-dollar price tag. In recent years the governors of both states have meddled in its management and appointed people, some of them political hacks, more accountable to them than to the Authority -- Christie has been the champion at placing his own people there. (He's been accused, among other things, of siphoning off $1.8 billion in Port Authority funds to rehabilitate the Pulaski skyway, which isn't a Port Authority project.)
The Port Authority is a very large toy to put at the disposal of a governor. But in the entire history of the Authority, no one had shut down a facility, such as the lanes from Fort Lee, without ample notice to both sides and a process to validate the exercise.
Moreover, the way the Christie administration has distributed Sandy funds is becoming a major scandal of its own. Christie had to fight hard to get the just over $60 billion in relief money approved by Congress. At the time, several members of Congress charged that some of the money would be diverted for projects that had little or nothing to do with hurricane damage. Unfortunately, those critics have already been proven right. Steve Kornacki of MSNBC has exposed more Christie issues than anyone else. Among Kornacki's stories was a piece on the use of Sandy funds to build a seniors' apartment complex in Belleville, an inland town barely affected by the hurricane. (The project was on the drawing board well before Sandy hit.)
There have been complaints, meanwhile, that while sections of the shore have been restored, in particular the tourist area, many people with houses on the Jersey shore that were devastated weren't receiving the funds they deserved; no one knows what criteria were applied for helping people whose homes were destroyed almost a year and a half ago. Another issue that has brought trouble for Christie is that he used some of the federal money to pay for ads - not by the lowest bidder -- about Sandy recovery efforts that featured his family in the months running up to his reelection. The company hired to assess the compliance of Sandy projects with the law was suddenly and mysteriously fired the first week of February.
If it turns out that Christie has used the federal relief payment as a slush fund, this has serious implications -- not just for Christie and for his state but for any state in the country that has a natural disaster in the future. Christie's activities are now of national import.
Yet thus far most of the focus has been on the search for a "smoking gun" about what the governor knew about the bridge closings. The same thing happened during Watergate; the White House and its allies convinced too many people, including some members of the press, that there was nothing to pin on the president unless a "smoking gun" was found. The search went on in a roomful of smoke. As it happened, one turned up after the House Judiciary Committee had already voted for three articles of impeachment against Nixon, and it was clear that they would be approved by the House. But nervous Republicans -- Nixon still had a vocal constituency -- fell on a transcript released on August 5, that showed Nixon instructing a subordinate to call the CIA and tell it to pressure the FBI to call off its Watergate investigation because it would harm national security. This was flagrant obstruction of justice. But Nixon would have been impeached anyway. The lesson of the impeachment inquiry -- the only legitimate one in the nation's history -- was that in the end it doesn't and shouldn't matter what Christie knew and when.
When the House Judiciary Committee drew up the Articles of Impeachment against Nixon in the summer of 1974, the most important one, Article II, rested on the well-established theory of accountability -- that the president was accountable for the acts of his subordinates. After long debates about the meaning of various Federalist Papers and in particular James Madison's constitutional theories, a bipartisan majority of the committee voted to hold the president accountable for such acts. Article II charged the president with failing to obey his oath of office to protect the Constitution and to "take care that the laws be faithfully executed," and also charged that the responsibility for seeing that the proper execution of duties of the executive agencies not be contravened had been violated by the president and his subordinates. The committee established that certain activities by the executive, even if they didn't involve a crime, would not be tolerated.
Thus, Nixon wasn't charged with having committed a crime but with having violated his responsibilities as the chief executive. This was the most important principle established during Watergate. As it happened, criminal charges were brought later by the prosecutors and several of Nixon's aides went to jail; Nixon had been given immunity. So, either avenue is open to a legislature or federal agents in the case of malpractice by the chief executive and his subordinates.
It's possible that criminal charges will be brought against Christie or his aides. But much larger questions are before officials of New Jersey and the federal prosecutors investigating the various charges against Christie and his subordinates and allies. There is much still to be discovered, and the full extent of his administration's dealings on the bridge and the use of Sandy money and perhaps issues still unknown should be exposed. It would be an historic mistake, and one with national implications, if the issue of accountability were narrowed down to simply what Governor Christie knew and when.