TRENTON, N.J. – Fellow Republicans on Saturday debated the fallout over new suggestions that Gov. Chris Christie knew about a traffic-blocking operation orchestrated by top aides as apparent political payback earlier than he has acknowledged.
Some said the accusations could derail hopes of Christie running for president in 2016 if he can’t shake the scandal soon, while others were quick to express faith in the governor while discrediting his accuser and questioning his motives.
A letter released Friday by a lawyer for a former Christie loyalist who ordered the closures on the heavily traveled George Washington Bridge said evidence exists that the governor knew about the closings as they happened in September, which would contradict Christie’s previous assertions. The governor’s office has denied the claims by David Wildstein, a former executive with the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, who was among four people who lost their jobs in the scandal.
Reaction among top Republicans on Saturday appeared mixed, with most believing he could weather the storm but acknowledging the latest allegations hurt.
“It’s not good for him,” said Matt Beynon, a Republican operative who worked on former Sen. Rick Santorum’s 2012 presidential campaign and still has him as a client. “The longer the story goes on, the worse it gets for him. If this is still an issue a year from now, he’s going to have trouble pulling the trigger. … Gov. Christie will have to think long and hard about running.”
But Ken Langone, a co-founder of Atlanta-based Home Depot Inc. and a staunch Christie supporter, expressed no such reservations.
“I have complete faith and trust that the governor is telling the truth, and I continue to believe that he would be a superb president if he were elected in the future,” Langone said.
Matt Mackowiak, a Texas-based Republican consultant, agreed that Christie’s chances on a national stage won’t be harmed so long as he has been honest about what he knew.
“As long as he was telling the truth, he is fine,” Mackowiak said. “But if he knew about this, it brings him in directly and adds – potentially – dishonesty to the charges.”
Christie, who has kept mostly to the sidelines during the run-up to this year’s Super Bowl, which his state his hosting, received a smattering of boos and some cheers during a pre-game ceremony in New York on Saturday. He didn’t appear affected by the crowd’s reaction during the Times Square ceremony.
As the new head of the Republican Governors Association, Christie’s priority this year is raising money for the party’s gubernatorial candidates around the country. Republicans maintain that donors are staying loyal to Christie so far.
“My donors are saying they believe what Gov. Christie is saying. They’re giving him a lot of rope,” said Ray Washburne, who leads the Republican National Committee’s fundraising effort.
“He’s not raising money for himself,” Beynon added. “If you’re a donor in Cleveland, you’re thinking about (Ohio Gov.) John Kasich and not Chris Christie.”
Also Saturday, the lawyer for a state legislative panel investigating the traffic jams said he was confident the probe can continue without impeding a federal criminal investigation.
Reid Schar, special counsel to the panel, said he had discussed the parallel probes with officials from the U.S. Attorney’s office Friday and said the committee “would be mindful” not to interfere with the ongoing criminal investigation.
The lawmaker who chairs that panel said Wildstein’s new allegations validate the skepticism committee members have expressed throughout the probe, an investigation Christie once referred to as the Democrats’ obsession and some state Republicans have called “a witch hunt.”
Assemblyman John Wisniewski, a Democrat, said he doesn’t know what evidence Wildstein may have but said it could be an email or document that fell beyond the date range called for in the original subpoena.
Wildstein is among 20 people and organizations close to Christie who must comply with a new round of subpoenas by Monday, though Wisniewski said almost all the recipients have requested more time.
When Wildstein, a former political blogger who has known Christie since high school, appeared before the legislative panel, he asserted his right against self-incrimination and refused to answer any questions. His lawyer, Alan Zegas, has said Wildstein would testify if granted immunity from prosecution.
Wildstein has been identified as the person who ordered the lane closings. He resigned from a $150,000-per-year job that he got with Christie’s blessing because of the scandal.
“Any time you have disgruntled employees leave an operation you always wonder what’s going to happen,” Mackowiak said. “You could see this coming. Their lives have changed forever.”
Elliott reported from Washington. Associated Press writers Ken Thomas in Washington and Karen Matthews in New York contributed.