Thursday, September 22, 2016

Out of the Swamp

Image by Jacqueline Mellow for Alec McGillis's February 2014 piece in The New Republic.
How to talk to a New Jersey jury:
A vicious guy. He’s a bully, he’s an asshole, he’s a horrible person, he’s the most complicated person I’ve ever met. He’s a vindictive person who would destroy your life, he’s known for lying, he has a twisted mind, he’s maniacal, he’s a miserable prick.
That's Michael Baldassare, Bill Baroni's lawyer in the Bridgegate case, describing David Wildstein, who was Governor Christopher Christie's agent of evil in the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey at the time and is now the felon in the case who has been "cooperating" with the feds since he took a plea in May 2015 to help them build a case against Baroni, his former deputy at the Port Authority, and Bridget Kelly, Christie's former chief of staff. (In return for a lighter sentence, it still hasn't been decided how much lighter, than the 15 years he was likely to end up with.) The coverage on WNYC radio (by Andrea Bernstein and Matt Katz) has been enthralling, but it's even better reading it on the website, linked above, where you get some color you can't get on the radio.

The main thing that's been emerging so far is the way that same description seems to apply to the governor. The prosecution and defense are in pretty much complete agreement on that, and more specifically that Christie definitely did play the leading role, in concert with Wildstein, in locking up traffic in Fort Lee, NJ, and on the George Washington Bridge, for three days in September 2013—the first week of the school year, to make it as nasty as possible for Fort Lee mayor Mark Sokolich, a Democrat, as vengeance for his failure to endorse Christie, a Republican, in that year's gubernatorial race, to which Christie had taken offense, having wooed Sokolich a lot more energetically than we realized: in testimony yesterday Sokolich explained that he
met with Christie staffer Matt Mowers five or six times a year, that he was invited to Giants games, that Christie staged an episode of "Morning Joe" that was beamed from Fort Lee, and that he was invited to a small lunch at Drumthwacket, the governor's mansion, with another mayor and Christie spokesman Mike Drewniak: “And then a door opened on another side of the table and out came Gov. Christie,” who stayed with the two mayors for almost two hours, Sokolich said. This was a big deal for a local Mayor. (After the Bridgegate story broke, Christie said he couldn't recall having met Sokolich.)  
As you know, Christie has been maintaining for the last couple of years that he he could barely recall having met Wildstein, for that matter, though they've known each other since they belonged to the Livingston High School Lancers varsity baseball team in the late 1970s—
David and I were not friends in high school. We were not even acquaintances in high school.... I knew who David Wildstein was. I met David on the Tom Kean for governor campaign in 1977. He was a youth volunteer, and so was I. Really, after that time, I completely lost touch with David. We didn’t travel in the same circles in high school. You know, I was the class president and athlete. I don’t know what David was doing during that period of time…
Sure, Chris. In fact it develops that they knew each other very well then and later as well, from the days when Christie as US attorney used to slip self-serving scoops to Wildstein's blog "Wallie Edge" to the time when Christie sent him, in spite of his lack of qualifications, to work in the Port Authority, basically as the governor's personal ratfucker, as described by Kelly's attorney, Michael Critchley
He said that Wildstein, who had a background running his family’s doormat business and as a political blogger, was unqualified for the prominent position he was given at the Port Authority, a multi-billion dollar agency that controls most of the region’s major airports, seaports, bridges and tunnels. Pacing up and down in front of the jury box, Critchley said that “the governor personally put him there” because Wildstein was a trusted political operative.
Critchley said that Wildstein wanted to impress Christie to show how valuable he could be in Christie’s upcoming run for the Republican presidential nomination.
“It was his objective to use the assets of the Port Authority to advance Chris Christie’s political ambitions,” Critchley said. “He knew why they put him there.”
Critchley went on to recount how one of Wildstein’s main functions was to seek endorsements for the governor from elected officials and unions.
He recounted one episode in which he said that Wildstein arranged for the Port Authority to buy the Marine Ocean Terminal at Bayonne for almost $240 million to secure the mayor of Bayonne’s endorsement. He said that another, unidentified mayor was given $35,000 to pay for the collection of goose droppings.
I could just go on and on.

The biggest question that emerges (aside, for us New Yorkers, from the extent to which Andrew Cuomo participated in the coverup, which is definitely lots more than zero) is why Christie hasn't been indicted, since his guilt is really getting kind of obvious (especially since the revelations of skullduggery over his missing emails, text messages, and cell phone, which make the Clinton "scandal" sound like, well, not like a scandal), and the only answer I've heard (literally heard, on the radio from Andrea Bernstein, and I'm not linking it because I can't find it at the WNYC website) is that the prosecution just didn't think it could get a conviction.

Which is well, hm. I don't see how they can get a conviction in their case that Bridget Kelly masterminded the whole thing on the basis of that one email saying "time for some traffic problems" either. The defense case is that was a snarky remark, not an order to proceed:
The mother of four going through a divorce at the time of the email was juggling lower-level duties -- ordering food for events and scheduling meetings at the governor’s mansion. “The idea that Bridget Kelly is directing the affairs of the state of New Jersey, ordering the shutdown of the George Washington’s almost absurd,” Critchley said. He argued that Kelly was a “scapegoat,” blamed by the governor’s lawyers for the lane closures to protect Christie’s nascent presidential campaign. “They wanted to throw her under the presidential bus.”
Which sounds just about right. And if they do get convictions, and Baroni and Kelly end up doing considerably more time than Wildstein while Christie waddles off to Wall Street or K Street to get even richer than his charmed life and wife have already made him, an injustice will have been done—even though Baroni and Kelly are partly to blame themselves, for insisting on pleading innocent.

A bigger issue that arises for me is about the journalism here. As fascinating as the trial is, it's not really giving us a story that differs in any important way from the story we've all been constructing in our heads for the last couple of years. It was obvious to me, and presumably to most readers here, that Christie and Wildstein together were conducting a very dirty operation in New Jersey, suborning the state government and the Port Authority, as part of Christie's presidential campaign, and that the traffic problems in Fort Lee were part of it, even though the newspapers never said it was.

The story confirms, it that way, what we've known all along, and you might assume that it's what the reporters have known all along as well—they just can't say it outright because they don't have adequate proof, and that seems OK; they shouldn't be saying things they can't back up in that way, and we learned enough from the reporting, which was really great a lot of the time, to make up our own minds. But Bernstein said something on the air that made me question this understanding: that she'd been so immersed in the detail that she felt as if she'd spent these months as a diver in a murky river, focusing on details and not seeing the whole picture, and that watching the trial was like watching the wreck emerging out of the water, and coming clear to her for the first time.

Did she and Katz really not know what the big picture was going to be like, as they worked those details? Have they been hiding the story they couldn't report not just from us but from themselves? Would the journalism be better if they'd allow themselves once in a while to speculate in their own names when they don't have a quote from some authority to do it for them, to shape the narrative? If they'd given themselves that permission, would Christie (along with all the other financial and military and political criminals who have escaped punishment over the past 15 or 16 years because the press can't quite put their stories together in an intelligible way) have gotten caught? Or should people just be reading more blogs?

No comments:

Post a Comment