When Karl Rove praises a politician’s “straightforward” approach to an erupting scandal, it seems wise to expect that something very twisted will instead emerge in due course — and to consider his real objectives.
In this instance, the former Bush White House political boss — and current Republican super PAC godfather — was discussing Gov. Chris Christie’s response to “Bridgegate,” as the events surrounding the vengeful closure of part of the George Washington Bridge by the New Jersey governor’s aides is now called.
Appearing on “Fox News Sunday,” Rove said Christie “did himself a lot of good” during the famous two-hour press conference on the scandal when he sorrowfully announced the firing of a deputy chief of staff and a top state party official for “lying” to him about the bridge affair.
“I think his handling of this, being straightforward, taking action — saying, ‘I’m responsible’ — firing the people probably gives him some street cred with some tea party Republicans, who say, ‘That’s what we want in a leader, somebody who steps up and takes responsibility,’” said Rove. Pandering to the Fox audience, he went on to contrast the righteous Christie with Bill and Hillary Clinton, as well as President Barack Obama, and to note that the IRS and Benghazi “scandals” hadn’t gotten nearly enough attention compared with Bridgegate.
While Rove sticks a halo on the man his old boss Dubya used to call “Big Boy,” everyone else might wait for the documents and testimony forthcoming from investigations at the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, which operate the bridge; in both chambers of the New Jersey legislature; in the Department of Justice; and in the United States Senate.
Observers dazzled by Christie’s press conference performance should perhaps ask themselves how his top aides managed to pursue this scheme — evidently in revenge against the mayor of Fort Lee, the New Jersey commuter town so badly damaged by the closing of traffic lanes — under his nose.
They might ask why the governor continued to believe, as he says he did, that the controversial action resulted from a “traffic safety study” almost a month after the Port Authority’s top executive and two other PA officials testified Dec. 9, 2013, that no such study ever existed.
They might further ask about the very curious photograph published by The Wall Street Journal on Jan. 14, showing Christie yukking it up in public with David Wildstein, the Port Authority official who ordered the lane closures at the behest of Bridget Anne Kelly, last Sept. 11, three days into the traffic crisis in Fort Lee.
And they might then ask why Christie insisted — at the endless press conference where his candor so impressed Rove — that he has had “no contact with David Wildstein in a long time, a long time, well before the election.”
Christie’s description of his supposedly distant relationship with Wildstein is only one among many of his claims of innocence that contradict either the public record or common sense, or both. While awaiting additional information from Wildstein and other potentially immunized defendants, however, it may be worth considering the history that links Christie to Rove — and why the Republican strategist is so enamored with the New Jersey governor.
Their relationship was first exposed during the Bush administration’s U.S. attorneys scandal, when investigations of the gross political abuse of the Justice Department by the Bush White House clearly implicated Rove. Among the U.S. attorneys cited as dubious political appointees was Christie, whose law partner, a top Bush fundraiser and Republican operative, had forwarded his resume to Rove. Later, while still in the U.S. attorney’s office — where he stage-managed a blatantly political election-year probe of Democratic Sen. Robert Menendez — Christie consulted with Rove about running for governor.
Christie is exactly the sort of presidential hopeful that a notorious bully like Rove prefers: a blustering loudmouth with a common touch; an experienced fundraiser who knows how to find the money; a Wall Street conservative capable of stirring up the base without scaring the independents. Without Christie as the GOP’s 2016 frontrunner, Rove has no plausible alternative to tea party hopefuls Rand Paul and Ted Cruz — and may see his own power, already waning, finally eclipsed.
Joe Conason is a nationally syndicated columnist.