Plausible deniability is a term coined by the CIA in the early 1960s . . .. The term most often refers to the capacity of senior officials in a formal or informal chain of command to deny knowledge of and/or responsibility for any damnable actions committed by the lower ranks because of a lack of evidence that can confirm their participation, even if they were personally involved or at least willfully ignorant of said actions.Kate Zernike and Marc Santora, "‘Very Sad’ Chris Christie Extends Apology in Bridge Scandal," New York Times, Jan. 10, 2014, p. A1. [Photo credit: unknown.]
-- "Plausible deniability", Wikipedia.org
If you're unfamiliar with the story, on August 12th of last year, Bridget Anne Kelly, the Governor's Deputy Chief of Staff, sent an email to David Wildstein. Wildstein, who had known Christie since high school, worked at the Port Authority, the agency that manages the George Washington Bridge connecting Fort Lee, New Jersey, with New York City. According to the Times story, linked above, the email read in its entirety, "'Time for some traffic problems in Fort Lee' . . .. One month later, on Sept. 9, Mr. Wildstein ordered traffic lanes from Fort Lee closed, causing a traffic nightmare that added hours to the commutes of thousands of drivers." Ibid. (The story cited and linked is but one of hundreds, some with additional details. They can be easily found with a Google search. But this is enough for the purposes of this blog essay.)
Here are some of the questions I see in all this:
Why do Democrats who care about their country as well as their party have a stake in this?More will undoubtedly be added to this blog essay over time. But for now, here are some summary responses.
Did Governor Christie order, participate in, or have knowledge of the lane closings?
Even if he did not, has Governor Christie created such "a culture of retribution" that it is the equivalent of his active participation?
Is it not only reasonable and probable, but even commendable, that employees endeavor to internalize and be guided by how they believe their supervisors might decide the issues that arise -- up until the point at which the best option is to resign?
Are there any possible, plausible motives for Kelly and Wildstein to have launched the lane closings other than their desire to anticipate and execute what they believed would be the Governor's wishes?
What is the evidence that the Governor might have, or did, desire retribution against Fort Lee Mayor Mark Sokolich?
What other explanation might there be for the Governor seeking retribution against Fort Lee?
Why do Democrats who care about their country as well as their party have a stake in this?Am I a Democrat? Having run for a congressional seat in an Iowa Democratic Party primary, and received three presidential appointments from presidents who were Democrats, you'd probably have to say so. But it's also true that I am equally disgusted with both parties when it comes to the current system of campaign finance and its consequences -- the seeming inability of the legislative branch to represent the real interests of the 99%, putting members' prospects for re-election over everything else, gerrymandering the congressional districts, trying to score political points against each other, willingness to bring down the government and the nation's only president, throwing every possible roadblock in the way of third parties, refusing such remedies as "instant runoff," among other things.
Besides, every four years I try to identify the best Republican presidential candidate -- and not based on how easy it will be to defeat him or her. Given our two-party politics, the president will likely be either a Democrat or a Republican. Both parties almost always have a chance of having their candidate win. If it turns out to be the Republican, I'd far rather it be one we can all live with. (During the 2012 presidential election I ended up having to choose three Republican candidates, one after another, because the best ones kept dropping out, but ended up with this: "Why Mitt Romney? Better Than 'Least Worst' Republican," March 22, 2012; but see, "Abandoning Romney; Foreign Relations Disqualification, Now Domestic, Too," Sept. 22, 2012.)
Prior to "bridge-gate" I was already thinking about Governor Chris Christie as my probable Republican choice for 2016. And I haven't abandoned the idea. But it is on hold until bridge-gate gets fully investigated. Depending on the answers to the questions I raise here, he may still be the best we can find as a Republican candidate -- someone who does not hate either "government" or Democrats, and is willing to work with both. This is no time for Democrats to be trashing him, before looking around backstage to see if there are any qualified understudies to play the role. Democrats who believe Christie is "unacceptable" are obliged to answer the usual question, "Compared to what?"
Did Governor Christie order, participate in, or have knowledge of the lane closings?As the following questions suggest, even if Christie had no actual knowledge of or participation in what his staff was doing, that is far from the end of this matter. In fact, focusing on that question -- as his Republican defenders have done -- is a bit of a diversion, whether intended or not.
Even if he did not know or participate, has Governor Christie created such "a culture of retribution" that it is the equivalent of his active participation?If in fact what was done was retribution, done to punish an individual or group for something displeasing to Christie, is this the first and only incidence, or is it merely the latest (and perhaps most extreme) example of what has been a pattern of such behavior? If it is part of a pattern of behavior, that becomes significant for at least four reasons.
(1) While not proof, it is some support for the suspicion that retribution was the motive for bridge-gate.
(2) Even if he is totally innocent of any wrongdoing with regard to bridge-gate, most of us would not welcome the idea of putting in the White House a person whose political and personal personality involves a consistent pattern of retribution, bullying and pettiness.
(3) Such a pattern of behavior would explain why his employees might engage in such actions without his knowledge or participation.
(4) Indeed, if his employees knew that they were deliberately to use the tactics of plausible deniability as standard operating procedure, that would be further evidence of Christie's personal awareness that what was being done was wrong.
[Discovered after writing this: Kate Zernike, “Stories Add Up as Bully Image Trails Christie,” New York Times, Dec. 25, 2013, p. A1 (“Every organization takes its cues from the leadership as to what’s acceptable and what’s not, and this governor, in his public appearances, has made thuggery acceptable,” said Assemblyman John S. Wisniewski . . .. “For the governor to say, ‘I knew nothing about this’? He created the atmosphere in which this is acceptable.”] And see the addendum of prior examples at the bottom of this blog essay.
Is it not only reasonable and probable, but even commendable, that employees endeavor to internalize and be guided by how they believe their supervisors might decide the issues that arise -- up until the point at which the best option is to resign?When President Lyndon Johnson appointed me U.S. Maritime Administrator, I undertook a study of my president, found out as much about him as I could, talked to White House staff and his longtime friends, subscribed to the "Weekly Compilation of Presidential Documents," and read every statement published there. Before long, I was pretty good at predicting what he would say and do. Relying on that, and the conversations I had with him, the job description I wrote for myself was to approach every decision with that background in mind. What would he want me to do? What would he do, if he were serving as Maritime Administrator?
In my experience, most aides to political figures approach their jobs in this way. Given the number of people who want, and are considered, for such jobs, they are also relatively bright and more than relatively politically sophisticated.
It is for those reasons that I do find it hard to believe that Kelly and Wildstein would have launched anything as serious and potentially explosive as bridge-gate without at least believing (whether well founded or not) that it was what Governor Christie would have wanted them to do.
Are there any possible and plausible motives for Kelly and Wildstein to have launched the lane closings other than their desire to anticipate and execute what they believed would be the Governor's wishes?It is hard for me to imagine what personal motives Kelly and Wildstein might have had for causing bridge-gate, or how they would have benefited, or thought they might have personally benefited from doing so. This is not, so far as what's now revealed, a case of an employee embezzling money, turning over politically damaging material to the media or an opponent, using their position to obtain something of economic value, or a job, from someone doing business with the government. It doesn't appear that they would have a motive to do the Governor deliberate harm.
What is the evidence that the Governor might have, or did, desire retribution against Fort Lee Mayor Mark Sokolich?There are two questions here in addition to those above.
One involves the extent to which there is evidence that, if Christie was inclined to seek retribution against anyone, people in Fort Lee might be targeted.
If the answer to that is "yes," then the second question is whether there is evidence that Fort Lee Mayor Mark Sokolich was the person who was the target and trigger for Christie's pique.
There is undoubtedly more to come, and it may make clear beyond a reasonable doubt that, whatever Governor Christie's pattern of retributive behavior may be, and regardless of whether he was aware of the bridge-gate plan, the Governor was inclined to go after Democratic Mayor Sokolich for his failure to endorse Republican Governor Christie's re-election. But that is yet to be proved.
Some Democratic mayors may have been punished for not endorsing the Governor. It also appears, however, that numerous Democratic New Jersey mayors were not punished by the Governor for their failure to endorse him. It would be useful to know by what rationale Sokolich would have been singled out for this treatment.
Governor Christie said on the Rachel Maddow Show January 9, "Mayor Sokolich was never on my radar screen. He was never mentioned to me as somebody whose endorsement we were pursuing. In fact, I think he said on CNN last night he doesn`t recall ever being asked for his endorsement. . . . I never saw this as political retribution because I didn`t think he did anything to us. Now, we pursued lots of endorsements during the campaign from Democrats and we didn`t receive most of them. We received about 60 at the end of the day. We pursued hundreds. . . . I don`t have any recollection of . . . anybody . . . asking me to meet with Mayor Sokolich . . . the typical course that was used when we were attempting to get an endorsement . . .. I don`t remember ever meeting Mayor Sokolich in that context." "'The Rachel Maddow Show' for Thursday, January 9, 2014," Jan. 9, 2014.
[After writing this, I find TalkingPointsMemo reports, "The one thing that seems clear is that fewer and fewer people think this was all about an campaign endorsement." Josh Marshall, "TPM Editor's Blog/BridgeGate: The Who and the Why," TalkingPointsMemo.com, Jan. 13, 2014.]
What other explanation might there be for the Governor seeking retribution against Fort Lee?What has, so far, made the most sense to me is the theory -- and that's all it is -- that I heard Rachel Maddow suggest last Thursday [Jan. 9]. Maddow noted that the now-famous email ("Time for traffic problems in Fort Lee") was sent 7:34 the morning after the night before. And what happened the night before? Apparently, Christie's frustration with N.J. Senate Democrats took the form of an angry outburst. It seems the Governor broke with the previously unbroken N.J. tradition that judges are re-appointed, and refused to give a reappointment to a Democrat-appointed judge. In response, the N.J. State Senate Democrats have repeatedly refused to approve the Governor's replacement nominees. Ultimately, the Governor even pulled the name of a personal friend.
As Ms. Maddow put it, "The reason he said he did it in her case is . . . because he said Senate Democrats were animals . . . and he was not going to subject this judge who he respected . . . to the savagery of the Senate Democrats.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
"CHRISTIE: . . . I simply could not be party to the destruction of Helen Hoens` professional reputation . . .. I`m taking responsibility for not allowing this group of people to do to her what they did to [the other nominees]. . . . [W]hat the ramifications will be for that going forward, they should have thought about before they opened their mouths. . . .
(END VIDEO CLIP)
"MADDOW: That was an angry Chris Christie . . . furious with Senate Democrats at a hastily called press conference that took place late in the day on Tuesday, August 12th, 2013. . . . [A]nd it is the next morning at 7:34 . . . that his deputy chief of staff gives the go-ahead to the Port Authority. "Time for some traffic problems in Fort Lee." Go to the list of legislative districts . . .. Find . . . Fort Lee, New Jersey, [it's] legislative district 37. Who represents district 37? . . . [T]he leader of the Senate Democrats . . . represents Fort Lee [Senate Majority leader, Loretta Weinberg]. "'The Rachel Maddow Show' for Thursday, January 9, 2014," Jan. 9, 2014.
At this point in time nobody knows if Ms. Maddow's theory ultimately will prove to be the explanation for this or not. But right now, if I had to choose, it sounds a lot more credible than that bridge-gate occurred because the Governor was trying to punish a mayor for failing to endorse him. Of course, this that they were telling the truth when the Governor said he didn't realize that the Fort Lee Mayor was one of the mayors whose endorsement his campaign was trying to get, that he had never met with the mayor about that, and the mayor's declaration that he has no clear recollection that he was contacted by anyone else in the campaign.
For another possibility, see, Brian Murphy, "Is a Billion Dollar Development Project at the Heart of Bridgegate?" TalkingPointsMemo, Jan. 12, 2014 ("We now know that a major redevelopment project, one that depends on Port Authority assets and relationships, was put in jeopardy at a vulnerable financial moment, and in a way that put the viability of the entire project at risk. But we still don’t know why. This batch of subpoenaed documents isn’t going to tell us, and the people who know – who really know – either aren’t talking or haven’t yet been questioned.").
Addendum, Jan. 16. There are two sets of separate issues here with regard to Governor Christie's use of retribution against opponents. One involves bridge-gate: (a) did retribution figure as a motive for closing lanes? (b) if so, against whom was it directed? And, of course, (c) to what degree was Governor Christie informed or involved in the plan and its execution?
The second set of issues involves the extent to which Christie has a pattern of punishing his "enemies." If bridge-gate is the only instance in which Christie has ever engaged in retribution, it could, perhaps, be excused -- notwithstanding its substantive seriousness. We could look at it as a one-off aberration, albeit a dangerous and possibly illegal one. But it would not need to be viewed as a disqualifying element of his character; something that he would carry into the oval office.
If, on the other hand, it is consistent with a prior pattern of extreme, retributive actions against opponents or those who otherwise displease him, that pattern (as distinguished from this one instance) is a matter of much greater concern.
There is at least some significant evidence, alas, that retribution may be a fundamental part of his character and method of operation and governing.
Kate Zernike, “Stories Add Up as Bully Image Trails Christie,” New York Times, Dec. 25, 2013, p. A1:
• In 2011, Mr. Christie . . . accused State Senator [and former Governor] Richard J. Codey of being “combative and difficult” in blocking two nominees. . . . Three days later, . . . the state police superintendent inform[ed] him that he would no longer be afforded [a state] trooper . . .— a courtesy granted all former governors. [Codey’s] . . . cousin . . . [a state employee] was fired, as was [his] former deputy chief of staff [from another state position]. . . .Now some may look at these examples and say, "Yeah, and so? Many public officials, from police to presidents, are invested with considerable discretion. Apparently Christie finds sticks more effective than carrots. What's the big deal?" Stalled nominations have recently become routine in Washington. So what's so shocking about the fact they apparently happen in New Jersey, too?
• [T]he governor . . . wanted [redistricting commission member, Rutgers political scientist, Alan] Rosenthal to vote for the [Republicans’ redistricting] map, . . . but [Rosenthal] chose the Democrats’ plan . . .. Soon after, Mr. Christie used his line-item veto to cut $169,000 [from Rosenthal’s Rutgers] institute . . ..
• Mr. Christie was smarting from [Republican State Senator Sean T. Kean’s] criticism that [Christie should have called] earlier for a state of emergency [following a] blizzard [that] paralyzed the state . . .. [Christie] . . . held [a] news conference in Mr. Kean’s . . . district. [A] member of the governor’s staff warned [Kean] not to show up. His seat was eliminated in redistricting the following year. . . .
• Republican, State Senator Christopher Bateman, [who] voted against the governor’s plan to reorganize . . . public medical education . . .. had been working with the governor to get a judge appointed . . .. Suddenly, after months when it looked as if it would happen, the nomination stalled.
But let us put Governor Christie aside for a moment, and look at this issue more generally. Are there neutral principles, reasonable standards generally agreed upon, regarding the outer limits of the norms restraining executive abuse of persuasive tactics? The 2012 movie, "Lincoln," for example, portrays what some might consider Lincoln's excessive use of persuasive techniques to get the House of Representatives to put forward the Thirteenth Amendment to the Constitution in 1865. There are many stories about "the Johnson treatment" that President Lyndon Johnson used on House and Senate members -- though I cannot immediately come up with examples of things done by either Lincoln or Johnson that come close to deliberately causing a traffic jam across a major bridge. President Nixon, of course, had his famous "enemies list." For an entire blog essay devoted to this inquiry, see "On Love and Fear in Politics; From Machiavelli to Christie," January 18, 2014.
Meanwhile: To deny a former governor the assistance of a state trooper apparently at least violates a New Jersey norm; firing state employees, who have done no wrong, to get back at a relative of theirs may actually be a violation of law. Eliminating a legislator's seat for a remark would seem similar. Denying an academic his state appropriated research grant because he supports a redistricting plan opposed by the Governor also looks like at least a violation of norms, if not of law -- unless the "commission" is, and is intended to be, a part of the governor's staff, and subject to executing his wishes.
Addendum, January 22, 2014. Hoboken. "In a television interview on Saturday, she [the mayor of Hoboken, N.J., Dawn Zimmer, a Democrat] said that two high-ranking aides to Mr. Christie had threatened to withhold money for Hurricane Sandy recovery to her hard-hit city if she did not support a real estate development that the governor wanted built in her jurisdiction. . . . Speaking on MSNBC, she produced journal entries that she said documented conversations in which Lt. Gov. Kim Guadagno and Richard E. Constable [Department of Community Affairs], told her that if she wanted the money, she had to approve the project." Michael Barbaro and Kate Zernike, "Mayor of Hoboken Says Hurricane Relief Was Threatened," New York Times, Jan. 19, 2014, p. A21.
For the response denying these assertions, see Patrick McGeehan, "Lieutenant Governor Calls Hoboken Mayor's Claims 'Illogical," New York Times, Jan. 21, 2014, p. A14 (“Any suggestion that Sandy funds were tied to the approval of any project in New Jersey is completely false.”).
There will be, no doubt, considerably more to come involving Chris Christie's past behavior in general, and the facts surrounding bridge-gate in particular.