Chris Christie long played the part of New Jersey bully with pride, dressing down reporters and even constituents in made-for-YouTube moments that catapulted him to national fame as a new kind of tough-guy, say-it-like-it-is politician. If there were ever such a thing as a principled, good-government bully, Christie was supposed to be it: willing to speak his mind even if it wasn’t politically artful. He played above the pettiness that has soured so many Americans on Washington.
That all changed on Wednesday. Or at least that’s the politically perilous risk for the Garden State governor and presidential hopeful, after newly disclosed documents revealed one of his top aides vindictively tasking a transportation official to snarl traffic in a town whose mayor wouldn’t endorse her boss. The documents read like a caricature of government bureaucrats plotting to wreak havoc — not what Christie had in mind when he declared during his victory speech last year that Washington could learn a thing or two from Trenton.
“Time for some traffic problems in Fort Lee,” Bridget Anne Kelly, a deputy chief of staff, wrote in an Aug. 13 email, shortly after the town’s mayor declined to back Christie. Emails and other messages showed transportation and administration officials boasting with glee that they were ignoring the panicked pleas of Fort Lee officials wondering why their constituents couldn’t get to the heavily trafficked George Washington Bridge into New York City. When one official conceded feeling bad for the children, another shot back with seeming disdain for supporters of Christie’s failed Democratic opponent Barbara Buono: “They are the children of Buono voters.”
Until Wednesday, Christie had insisted his office never had any involvement in what staffers called a “traffic study,” even as two close allies he appointed to the Port Authority resigned in an attempt to spare him the distraction. After canceling his only public event on Wednesday to go into crisis control, Christie issued a statement late in the day disavowing those who sought to act on his behalf.
“What I've seen today for the first time is unacceptable,” he said. “I am outraged and deeply saddened to learn that not only was I misled by a member of my staff, but this completely inappropriate and unsanctioned conduct was made without my knowledge. One thing is clear: this type of behavior is unacceptable, and I will not tolerate it because the people of New Jersey deserve better. This behavior is not representative of me or my administration in any way, and people will be held responsible for their actions.”
What happens next remains to be seen, and there’s every expectation that heads will roll. Some were quick to declare Christie’s White House ambitions dead on Wednesday. That is surely premature — no votes will be cast for two years. It will be a heavy lift for his opponents to turn an obscure traffic incident in north Jersey into something that matters to swing voters in Ohio or primary voters in Iowa and New Hampshire.
But the danger to Christie is real, and Republicans inside Washington and out — many who see him as a savior for the party — were shocked and dismayed to see him embroiled in such a parochial scandal.
“I do not believe for a minute that Chris Christie knew about this, and if he had known about it, he would have stopped it,” says Fred Malek, a top GOP fundraiser who works with Christie on the Republican Governors Association. “This is a bush-league tactic that is far below a man of his character and sophistication. It's not an acceptable practice, and he needs to deal with it decisively.”
“I don't blame Chris Christie for this personally,” Republican strategist Rick Wilson says. "But his people did not serve him well. All the people involved in doing this have to be canned, all the people who hired them have to be canned. You can't tolerate stupidity on the part of staff if you're going run of President, where everything becomes public.”
With Republicans already voicing quiet concerns that Christie might be too thin-skinned for a presidential bid, it didn’t go unnoticed that Christie’s people picked this fight during a race he was sure to win in a landslide anyway.
“These people were engaged in a political-revenge play against a small fish,” Wilson says.
At risk is nothing less than Christie’s very political identity, which he had controlled so well to this point. A credible governor — or President — doesn’t act like a local political boss, and while Republicans have long lambasted President Barack Obama as a typical Chicago-machine politician, they never really caught him acting like one. With stories of Christie’s team’s penchant for vengeance starting to pile up — and Democrats more motivated to highlight the tales than when they rolled over for him in 2013 — time is short for him to wrestle back control of his story.
“Democrats are beside themselves that they gave Christie a free pass to define himself in 2013 on very favorable terms,” one prominent Republican strategist tells TIME. “They’re going to spend 2014 making up for lost time. It's only going to get worse from here on out.”
One close Christie ally at the center of the scandal is set to testify publicly on Thursday, and New Jersey Democrats promised to pursue their own investigation with renewed fervor.
And the small-town mayor whom Christie's people sought to punish? Mark Sokolich took to CNN to take a victory lap for the forgotten players in the scandal, his Fort Lee constituents who got stuck in place for two days: “Who would possibly reduce themselves to reducing lanes to the busiest bridge in the world?"