Reports that a probe of the Bridgegate controversy conducted by outside lawyers at the behest of New Jersey Governor Chris Christie has cleared him of wrongdoing is good news for his supporters. According to stories that have been published in multiple news outlets, the inquiry has determined that there is no evidence that Christie helped plot or carry out the bizarre scheme by which officials in his office and allies at the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey created a traffic jam on the bridge in order to inconvenience or embarrass the mayor of Fort Lee as revenge for a political slight to the governor.
But those who are hoping this will restore Christie to the strong political position he was in–especially with regard to the 2016 presidential contest–before the story broke in January are bound to be disappointed. While I think it entirely likely, if not probable, that the conclusion that the governor was not personally involved in creating the bridge tie-up will be vindicated by subsequent investigations conducted by the U.S. Attorney’s office and the New Jersey legislature, that won’t stop Christie from being dragged through the mud by those running other probes. Nor will it quiet speculation from unfriendly outlets about what will be learned from the testimony of Christie associates who refused to talk to the governor’s lawyers, who produced this report. That means that although Christie and some of his supporters are acting as if Bridgegate is merely a bump on the road to 2016 that he can overcome, this report is a reminder not only of the difficulty he will have in getting back on message but also the way his opponents—both in New Jersey and in the national media—will use this issue to hound him relentlessly over the scandal in the coming months.
The report, which was paid for by the state of New Jersey, interviewed 70 witnesses as well as reviewing available records. But since the lawyers (led by former Rudy Giuliani chief of staff Randy Mastro) who conducted it are seen as political allies of Christie, Democrats are likely to cast doubt on its findings. Just as important, key figures that did orchestrate the traffic jam, such as Christie’s former deputy chief of staff Bridget Ann Kelly, who did not talk to Mastro because of her potential legal peril, undermined the effort.
But even if subsequent probes by Democrats in the legislature and the U.S. Attorney’s office never prove that Christie was part of the scheme, putting this in his rear-view mirror isn’t as simple as that. The process that will unfold in the legislature and by the Justice Department will ensure that the Bridgegate story will continue to unfold throughout 2014 and perhaps well into 2015. The drip-drip-drip of stories and non-stories about various aspects of the investigation leaked by those with a vested interest in besmirching Christie or at least tying him up in knots in defending his reputation won’t stop.
This is blatantly unfair, as is the fact that the news media was willing to devote more time and resources to covering this story than it was—or still is—to far more serious scandals such as those involving the IRS or Justice Department spying on the press. But at the core of Christie’s problems is something more than just another, if particularly egregious instance of liberal media bias. The fact is that people close to the governor hatched a ridiculous scheme that was intended to advance his political interests. This scheme was absurd and basically pointless but it was a massive and easily understood abuse of government power. Even if he had nothing to do with it, the question of whether a culture of bullying and exacting revenge on opponents fostered by Christie led to Bridgegate will always hover over him.
Christie remains a formidable figure in Republican politics and an able politician. But Bridgegate sullied his reputation in a way that will make it impossible for the governor to recapture the sense that he was the inevitable mainstream GOP choice or even a first-tier candidate for president. He already had serious problems convincing conservatives to trust him. Some will never forgive his 2012 embrace of Barack Obama or his slighting of Mitt Romney during his convention speech that same year, not to mention his pragmatic blue-state emphasis on winning rather than ideology. Bridgegate gave Republicans an excuse to avoid confronting those issues and it isn’t likely they will ever reconsider that decision.
Though he may act as if his plans haven’t changed, even a Christie who is universally acclaimed as innocent on the bridge fiasco—something Democrats will do their best to prevent in spite of the lack of evidence to the contrary—has little chance in 2016. Today’s report doesn’t change that conclusion.