A Jilted Lover, a 'Crazy' Man and Diane Sawyer: What Christie Crisis Management Looks Like

Thursday, March 27, 2014

Gov. Christie posted an Instagram image of his family and Diane Sawyer after their interview Thursday night.

The internal Bridgegate report released by a legal team hired by New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie's office contains some new information, but not much. The report is more instructive as a study in crisis management -- and an examination of how a possible presidential candidate reacts to a crisis.

Step 1, Stagecraft: The report was commissioned by the governor, paid for by taxpayers (to the tune of $1 million) and written by Christie allies. The report's conclusions, but not the detailed findings, were first leaked to The New York Times in a front-page story Monday. On Thursday, Christie attorney Randy Mastro held a news conference at his law offices high above midtown Manhattan and insisted to a skeptical press corps that this was an independent, exhaustive report that sought all information, good or bad, about the governor. But the presence of one of the governor's spokesmen and a member of his advance team indicated close coordination. The report was more than 300 pages long, but it was provided to the media only an hour before the news conference. And even then, thousands of pages of back-up documents — including emails from the governor himself — were not released until the news conference began. 

Mastro cut off reporters' questions after about 90 minutes. He promised to do interviews later, but told WNYC that he was too busy. Meanwhile, Christie sat for a softball interview with Diane Sawyer to lead "ABC World News" at 6:30 p.m. Further clips from the interview were slated to air on "Nightline," and then on "Good Morning America."

Step 2, Talk About Sex: An odd detail appeared in the fifth paragraph of the report's executive summary. After Christie's deputy chief of staff, Bill Stepien, quit his position in April 2013 to manage the governor's re-election campaign, the Mastro report said, he became "personally involved" with the woman who took his place in the governor's office, Bridget Anne Kelly.

"At some point after Stepien's departure to run the campaign, Kelly and Stepien became personally involved, although, by early August 2013, their personal relationship had cooled, apparently at Stepien's choice, and they largely stopped speaking," the report declared. Later, it returns to the topic, offering the surmise that Kelly's decision to participate in organizing the Fort Lee Lane closures may have had something to do with being dumped by her former boss Stepien: "Events in Kelly's personal life may have had some bearing on her subjective motivations and state of mind." 

How Mastro and his team reaxhed these conclusions about the personal relationship determined is not known, since neither Stepien nor Kelly spoke to Christie's investigators. But the report's focus on the matter served two purposes. First, it explained away Kelly's involvement in the lane closures, attributing her actions by attacking her emotional state of mind. And second, by noting that Kelly and Stepien "had largely stopped speaking" when she sent an August email that it was "time for some traffic problems in Fort Lee," the report separated Stepien, Christie's right-hand political man, from the conspiracy. If Stepien wasn't involved, the implication is, then Christie wasn't involved.

Still, Stepien's attorney, Kevin Marino, was disgusted by what he described as a gratuitous and irrelevant effort at distraction on the part of Christie's lawyers. "The headlines, what I've seen so far, everyone seems to be leading with this relationship, and it's so completely off the point," Marino said. 

Step 3, Attack: The report extensively attacks the claims of Hoboken Mayor Dawn Zimmer. In the wake of Bridgegate, she accused the Christie administration of using Sandy aid as a political carrot: if she supported a Rockefeller Group-backed redevelopment project in her town, she would receive the aid. Fully half of the Mastro report's executive summary is dedicated to breaking down Zimmer's allegations.

Zimmer said that three Christie officials threatened to take away Sandy aid if she didn't approve the project, and that lobbyists close to Christie pressed for the project. Christie's lawyers present extensive evidence to counter Zimmer's claims and her credibility, even including still photographs from video taken at one of the public appearances where she said a shakedown occurred. The photographs "show Mayor Zimmer starting the conversation and doing most of the talking during it, yawning about midway through, and then smiling at the end—hardly the demeanor one would expect of someone who had just been threatened."

In an effort to reveal inconsistencies in her allegations, the report cites one previous Zimmer statement made to WNYC about Christie. However, it ignores a recent WNYC/NJ Spotlight investigation that found irregularities in the awarding of Sandy aid to Hoboken and other New Jersey towns.

Step 4, "Does Not Recall": The lawyers take the most potentially damning new accusation and immediately refute it, then dismiss it. They say that David Wildstein, the governor's appointee at the Port Authority, told Christie's spokesman that he had told the governor about the lane closures while they were happening when the pair were together at a Ground Zero memorial event on Sept. 11, 2013. But they nonetheless conclude that this statement is bogus, because Christie said he didn't "recall" this happening. The report also explains why the governor wouldn't have recalled such a conversation: "[It] would not have registered with the Governor in any event because he knew nothing about this decision in advance and would not have considered another traffic issue at one of the bridges or tunnels to be memorable."

Step 5, Frame The Questions: Perhaps what was most evident in the report was what wasn't there. For example, none of the top five biggest names in the Bridgegate scandal were interviewed. Among the missing: David Samson, Christie's mentor, who is currently serving the governor as chairman of the Port Authority, which operates the George Washington Bridge. Samson is referred to in previously released documents as being the one who would "retaliate" against the official who finally re-opened the lanes. So did he retaliate? Why was he chosen to retaliate? And why didn't Christie make sure he would sit down for an interview with his lawyers? By not posing these questions, the report steers clear of some of the most damaging revelations about one of Christie's closest allies and advisors. 

Step 6, Propose Reforms: Christie's lawyers make some intriguing recommendations going forward, such as the appointment of a chief ethics officer in the governor's office and the restructuring of the Port Authority. Yet, the report portrays the episodes that gave rise to its investigation as the isolated acts of aberrant figures: of Wildstein, who is described as having come up with the lane-closure idea "like so many other 'crazy' ones he’d had before that," and of Kelly, portrayed as a jilted ex. 

So why are systemic changes necessary if nothing systemic went wrong on Christie's watch? There is a disconnect between the findings and the recommendations. But people expect reform after a scandal; "reformer" is part of the Christie image. Tear a page from Crisis Management 101.


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Comments [13]

Stephen Bloch from Queens

It's as though nobody told Mastro he's not a defense attorney. A defense attorney starts with the axiom that his client is innocent, and from there his number one job is to discredit the witnesses for the prosecution. And it doesn't have to be solid facts: all you have to do is make insinuations that plant "a reasonable doubt" in the jury's minds. A few well-timed leaks to the press don't hurt either.

It's still possible that Christie actually didn't order the lane closings, or know about them, or even know that he was creating an atmosphere in which they would be approved with a wink. But this report, written at Christie's request by people who have been close to Christie for years, and without interviewing the five most important "witnesses", shouldn't convince anybody of that. And the fact that the report WAS written in that way, rather than by an independent and unbiased investigator, suggests that Christie has something to hide.

Mar. 29 2014 11:32 PM
Meredith from nyc

CC lives in a NJ dream world that most of the public is seeing through. He's increasingly closed off from reality, which he makes up as he goes along. As he goes further into the twilight zone, he will leave more supporters behind. The contrast between his lawyer's report and the future one from the US Attny & legis. committee should prove striking. If it ever comes, that is. Long delays there.
CC is about to enter an even more surreal fantasy world in Vegas to auction himself off to one of the highest bidders in our politics. Will he be accepted by Sultan Adelson? Will he deliver the goods for him, if nominated?

Mar. 29 2014 08:51 PM
Uncle David from Port Washington, New York

MOST OF US ARE FOOLS! With the daily increasing amount of facts coming to all those who are willing to do their due diligence and pay attention, we somehow think there will a large enough of a percentage of us to be properly informed enough to act and, ultimately, make a difference.
This can of worms that has opened up in New Jersey (and exists throughout our country)is just another example of how our trusted politicians have been corrupting, corroding degrading and dividing our society. Who can disagree that this abuse of our system of governance exists from our smallest villages to throughout Washington, DC?
Who would disagree that far too many of the elected politicians go into their various official positions with their secret agendas that impel them to work more for themselves then for us and the common good?
All of us should vote but we need citizens with the mindsets of being public servants to vote for. We need choices between good, better and bests to choose from. Not to "flip a coin" between "maybe we'll win or maybe we"ll loose and, OH SHIT!, we have lost again".
Can we find a way to get beyond this two party duopoly style of choosing our leaders and decision makers that supposedly represent our needs?
How many amongst us have the courage and foresight to agree that if dramatic changes are NOT made, and soon, our experimental republic will probably cease to exist and join so many others in the ash-pile of history?

Mar. 29 2014 03:01 AM

Even though the "report" is an obvious (and failed) attempt to whitewash, it is probably the best million dollars Christie has wasted in a while, since it gives sharper focus to Christie's planned defense. For instance, while we have known for a while that CC's plan has been to blame it all on Kelly, Wildstein and perhaps Stepien, this report makes it clear that no back room deals have been made with any of those three, judging by the comments of their lawyers in response to this very expensive press release. The gentle handling of ("General") Samson underscores that he's still allied with CC, and that CC's claim that he would direct all his employees to cooperate with the "investigation" was a lie; CC could have instructed Samson to cooperate with CC's lawyers, but he obviously did not.
Looking forward to the indictments, which will make for much more entertaining reading.

Mar. 28 2014 04:24 PM
Ward Green

Do you only post left leaning comments. Where were you all for our last two governors whose spending left us broke. Best of all nothing is said about the use of a big donor to our President to investigate another scandal of real importance. Yes the State is broke but look who has been in control for the years prior to Christie. Do you believe an attorney would put his firm's reputation on the line by untruthful findings.

Mar. 28 2014 03:53 PM

Looks like nobody believes this farce. What a east of the tax payer's money. Christie pretends he wants to save taxpayer money by canceling the tunnel to NY but doesn't hesitate a second to hold a special election for senator to increase his chances of a landslide and now a million dollars is spent in a blink to try to trick the public. I can't wait to see him take the perp walk in cuffs.

Mar. 28 2014 02:12 PM
ronald offenkrantz from New York City

What a waste of taxpayer money. Mr. Mastro should be ashamed of authoring a report which clearly vindicates no one, least of all Governor Christie whose memory seems to have failed him as to what he was told while the bridge fiasco was ongoing. Hopefully the investigation by the US Attorney and others will get to the truth of what occurred. Fort Lee traffic was horribly disrupted for 4 plus days and Christie, a/k/a Sergeant Schultz, "knew nothing"

Mar. 28 2014 01:14 PM
Ken Fost

If the governor had no knowledge of the GWB issue, and if he is confident that he will be vindicated by the ongoing investigations and. Court proceedings, why did he have to resort to this transparent and questionable report?

Mar. 28 2014 12:22 PM
Michael Edison from NYC

In Step 4, there is the following quote from the report: "[It] would not have registered with the Governor in any event because he knew nothing about this decision in advance and would not have considered another traffic issue at one of the bridges or tunnels to be memorable.

What is so beautiful about this quote is that, while the report was intended, at least in part, to determine if Christie was involved before hand, the justification for his non-recall is that he was not involved beforehand. Essentially, what is to be proved by the report is a priori assumed to be true.

Contorted but quite wonderful.

Mar. 28 2014 11:33 AM

I think that most thinking people see through this charade. Christie's popularity in NJ has plummeted despite his front-loaded with supporters Town Halls. This report, although paid for by NJ residents, is a PR stunt to promote the governor to undecided republicans outside of NJ. It won't work and it will be interesting to see how this corrupt man spends more of NJ citizen's money to promote himself.

Mar. 28 2014 11:14 AM
Sal Roselli from Lindenwold

I feel so much better now. I can actually sleep at night knowing that my wonderful "Governor" is such an honest upstanding person and politician. I can sleep like a baby knowing that my NJ state government is being led by such an honest guy and his merry band of followers like Drewniak, Sampson and the rest. I really needed to know that Birdgette was having a great sex life and that Stepien was getting a little on the side!!! What a load of Bull_hit. How can a law firm that is supposed to be respected put such garbage out and expect people other than the Republican minions to buy it???? You are still going down Big Boy there is no doubt about it!!!!

Mar. 28 2014 09:38 AM
Janet from New Jersey

This report is so transparent, and not in a good way. So many of the scandals surrounding the Christie administration currently would have been impossible had we still had the intense scrutiny of the fully-staffed, on the ground reporters of New Jersey Network. Like any good dictator, the first thing to do is shut down the media. Christie made his first political fight over denying NJN the $6 million needed to continue operations, but has cost the State how many times that since: $1 million for this sham 'investigation', that failed to talk to key players, how many million to inept crony companies tasked with and failing at distributing Sandy Aid, money lost by cancelling the ARC Tunnel, the money pit of Xanadu (or whatever it is being called now)..... the list is too long to go on but the math is irrefutable. The State is 'broke' when it comes to anything that benefits it's residents but seems to have endless funds to enrich friends snd political allies of Mr. Christie. History will reveal the full extent of the corruption.

Mar. 28 2014 09:12 AM
David from New Jersey

Three hundred pages of sheer fiction that cost NJ Taxpayers a million dollars to clear the reputation of a politician who no doubt is ultimately responsible.

Mar. 28 2014 08:23 AM

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