How Conservatives Are Using Chris Christie's Bridge Scandal To Score Political Points

Blog ››› ››› MATT GERTZ

Conservatives in the media are deceitfully seeking political gain from Gov. Chris Christie's bridge scandal, contrasting his response favorably with President Obama's handling of the 2013 IRS scandal. But that comparison is flawed.

Christie apologized during a January 9 press conference following the revelation that his aides had conspired to close traffic lanes leading to the George Washington Bridge as political retaliation, saying he had not known of their actions and that they had been fired. Conservatives are contrasting his actions favorably to President Obama's response to the allegations raised in May 2013 that the Internal Revenue Service had targeted conservative groups who sought nonprofit status for additional scrutiny.

The Wall Street Journal editorial board wrote in a January 9 piece that Christie's "contrition contrasts so sharply with President Obama's handling of the tax agency's abuse of political opponents and his reluctance to fire anyone other than a military general for anything." They added, "We raise this mostly because our media friends have been complicit in dismissing the IRS abuses, and for that matter every other legal abuse during the Obama years."

The talking point has also been regularly featured on Fox News, raised by hosts or commentators on America's NewsroomFox & FriendsHannityThe O'Reilly FactorThe Five, and Happening Now, as the network turns from ignoring the story to using it as a weapon to attack the Obama administration.

But the conservatives' comparison doesn't make sense. Both President Obama and Chris Christie have said they did not know about alleged misuse of power, but Christie's scandal involves his top political aides, while Obama's does not involve his own staff. Moreover, the claim that Obama did not seek accountability in the IRS scandal is inaccurate.

If Christie is telling the truth when he says that he was unaware that of the bridge malfeasance, then he wasn't paying attention to the actions of some of his closest aides and political allies, including:

  • Bridget Anne Kelly, Christie's deputy chief of staff for legislative and intergovernmental affairs, who sent a top transportation aide the email message "Time for some traffic problems in Fort Lee," triggering a massive four day traffic jam, allegedly in retaliation for Fort Lee Mayor Mark Sokolich's failure to endorse Christie's re-election. Kelly joined his administration in 2010 and was promoted to that high-ranking role in April 2013. Christie announced her firing during his press conference.
  • David Wildstein, at the time the director of interstate capital projects at the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, who replied "Got it" to Kelly's message and later gave the order to close the lanes in September 2013. Wildstein, a former Republican political operative, was appointed by Christie to the newly-created post with a salary of $150,000 despite a lack of experience with transportation issues. Wildstein was described by colleagues in a 2012 profile as "fiercely loyal to the governor" and as a man who "seems to serve as the administration's eyes and ears within" the Authority and compels "strict adherence to the Christie agenda." Wildstein resigned in December 2013 in the face of a legislative inquiry into the lane closures and pleaded the Fifth Amendment during a January 9 hearing into the scandal.
  • Bill Stepien, who managed both of Christie's campaigns and served as his deputy chief of staff in between, who corresponded with Wildstein about media coverage of the traffic jam and mocked Sokolich as "an idiot." Stepien was one of Christie's closest aides, and according to a Washington Post profile, served as a "critical liaison" between Christie and Republican legislators who had been "expected to be a prominent player in any Christie race for the White House." Christie said during his press conference that he had instructed Stepien not to seek the chairmanship of the state party as planned and had canceled his contract with the Republican Governors Association, which Christie chairs.

By contrast, the IRS scandal involves IRS bureaucrats largely based in Cincinnati who had allegedly devoted additional and inappropriate scrutiny to conservative groups requesting tax-exempt status. No ties to the White House -- not to mention Obama's closest aides -- have ever been revealed. As Salon's Brian Beutler notes, "Darrell Issa and other Republicans have scoured the record for a White House email that says, 'Time for some taxman problems in Fort Tea,' but they can't find one because one doesn't exist."

Over time this story has unraveled, as the release of new documents showed that progressive groups had also received additional scrutiny.

But regardless, the IRS allegations do not show a failure of accountability or contrition on the part of President Obama. As the Journal acknowledged, he fired the acting chief of the IRS days after the allegations first came to light, calling them "inexcusable and Americans are right to be angry about it. I'm angry about it."

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