Richard Nixon did not know about the Watergate break-in before it happened. That’s important to know. The reason that he was forced to resign was that he knew about and approved of the cover-up. And just as important, the cover-up wasn’t about Watergate but about the larger project that the Nixon administration was involved in: the dirty tricks and the retribution against real and perceived enemies. So in a larger sense, the big reason that Nixon was wrong was that he was the one who wanted his administration to be run as effectively a criminal enterprise.
I think the similarities between Nixon and Christie are overwhelming in this regard. There is no doubt that Christie designed his administration in a very corrupt way with the over-arching idea that it could get the most done in such a liberal state if everyone understood that any resistance to Christie’s will would be punished. This is important: it isn’t just that Christie knew about this, it is his own design; it is the way he works.
So just like Nixon with Watergate, I don’t think Christie knew about this particular bit of retribution against Fort Lee. But there is no doubt that his people did it because that is the way they work; that is the way Christie’s people knew that Christie expected them to work. It’s possible that Christie did know about it, but it certainly wasn’t the case that his people would have felt that they needed to get his approval about it. So let’s just give him the benefit of the doubt and say that he was not in on the original conspiracy.
That brings us back to the great question about the Watergate break-in and Nixon’s involvement. Howard Baker famously asked, “What did the president know and when did he know it?” I have the same question about Christie, “What did the governor know and when did he know it?” Because I absolutely don’t believe that he didn’t find out that some of his closest people were involved in a conspiracy to punish Fort Lee at the same time that we all did. That doesn’t strain credulity; it requires credulity combined with an intense desire to think the best about Christie. In other words, it requires a really really stupid Josh Barro.
When the traffic in Fort Lee started backing up, and it became an issue with accusations, Christie could not have failed to at least wonder if this wasn’t the work of his own people. It was, after all, the way they did things in the Christie administration. And as the controversy continued and built, there must have come a time when Christie asked one or more of his people what was going on. And I certainly think this happened well before his big meeting in December—three months after the event. A big meeting is not how he would have approached the issue. He would have asked key people quietly and with no one else around if there was anything to all the allegations.
Look at the way that Christie has answer questions. Politico reported, “When asked about that claims that the closures were ordered for political retribution, Christie said ‘absolutely, unequivocally not.'” Okay, but that isn’t the question now, is it? No one really thinks that Christie went to an aide and said, “Let’s cause a four-day traffic jam in Fort Lee”—much less, “Let’s cause a four-day traffic jam in Fort Lee to get back at…” He’s safe on that count just like Nixon was safe on the count that he did not order the Watergate break-in.
But what we have here is a very intelligent and sophisticated politician. And he has only acted on a big controversy surrounding him twice. The first time was in December when he had what amounts to a show meeting telling his people to admit to any wrong doing. The second time was when he fired two people, only after their misconduct was front page news. Chris Christie knew that his office was responsible for the Fort Lee traffic jam long before he fired anyone. And that means that he withheld information about the conspiracy. And that means he was involved in a cover-up.
The only thing that will save Christie is if there is no John Dean in his administration. John Dean, as you should recall, was White House Counsel for Richard Nixon. And Dean rolled over on Nixon. Without Dean, I doubt Nixon would have been forced out of the presidency. Well, there are a lot of potential John Deans out there. David Wildstein’s attorney has already made it perfectly clear that his client would have quite a lot to say if he were granted immunity. And as this whole thing becomes a criminal matter when people are looking at prison time, I believe there will be more people who will have stories to tell. I won’t be surprised at all if someone says, “I told the governor what we had done while it was still going on!” Regardless, someone is going to say something that will show that Christie was lying when he said he only found out when the story broke this last week.
If I were Chris Christie, I would be very worried about those two words. Who will be the member of his administration who fills that role? Who will be Chris Christie’s…