Jeff Smith: Chris Christie is Toast

Chris ChristieThe good news for Chris Christie is that some of the country’s most prominent  pundits believe that nearly three months after the George Washington Bridge  scandal first broke, the New Jersey governor is in good shape.

“You go around and you talk to Republicans, and they like Chris Christie more  today than they did three months ago … other than Jeb Bush, he still has the  clearest path to this nomination,” said“Morning Joe” host and Politico columnist Joe Scarborough last Tuesday,  apparently not as an April Fool’s joke. Scarborough reasoned that the liberal  media’s Christie pile-on might have endeared the governor to some conservatives  put off by his post-Hurricane Sandy embrace of President Barack Obama.

The bad news for Christie is that unlike some pundits, federal prosecutors  are not persuaded by white-shoe law firms’ “independent” investigations or  confrontational press conferences during which politicians are said to have  regained their “mojo.” Political pundits don’t tend to think like lawyers;  they’re focused on the horse race. It’s no wonder the narrative thus far has  downplayed legal liability.

I noted this divide in January, when I predicted  that Christie’s real problem was legal, not political, and that he would  ultimately be brought down not by Bridgegate itself but by an unrelated  investigation stemming from it in the same way that Monica Lewinsky had nothing  to do with an ill-fated Arkansas land deal called Whitewater and Al Capone went  down for tax evasion. Federal prosecutorial tentacles would make an octopus  envious. And so despite two marathon press conferences, a 360-page report  produced after an internal investigation by Christie’s lawyer Randy Mastro and  beheadings for much of his inner circle, Christie is actually in worse  shape than he was in when the scandal first broke.


The first reason for this is simple. As I know  all too well, having gone to prison for charges related to campaign finance  violations, years can elapse between the time federal agencies first begin  probing a target and the time they actually bring charges, and the deliberate,  exhaustive nature of federal investigations is legend. (To take one example,  when I reported for my post-conviction interview with agents, they knew the  dates I had visited a casino and amounts of money I had withdrawn from an ATM a  decade earlier, despite this being totally unrelated to the investigation.) Just  ask Vincent Gray, the soon-to-be  former mayor of Washington, D.C., who has been on the defensive after a  multi-year federal investigation into his campaign finances. The recent lull in  the Christie case (briefly interrupted Friday afternoon by the appearance  of Christie press secretary Michael Drewniak before a grand jury) may be just an  illusion—a glassy ocean surface with vicious activity occurring in the depths.  No one who talks to the feds would breathe a word, for multiple reasons, from  the obvious (prosecutorial orders/fear of an obstruction of justice charge) to  the more subtle (the shame of snitching on a beloved boss and patron).

Christie’s continuing  travel and exceptional  fundraising as Republic Governors Association chair and likely  presidential candidate is aimed in large part at combating the impression of  a weakening governor with all avenues of political advancement quickly closing.  But given the length, breadth and opacity of federal investigations, this is  like a surfer in the eye of the hurricane exhorting his pals, “Rain’s stopped – surf’s up!”

Perhaps there’s even a whiff of denial on Christie’s part: If I just  pretend that everything’s back to normal, and wow the national Republican  audiences who like me more than ever, maybe this will all fade away.

Jeff SmithI know the psychology well: After the feds knocked on my door the morning of  my re-election kickoff fundraiser, I gritted my teeth, raised $100,000 that  night (on the advice of counsel, who recommended that I proceed as if nothing  were amiss) and wished the successful event could make it all go away. (I ended  up returning all the donations.) But while a federal target is traipsing around  with billionaires in Orlando and Las Vegas, the gears of justice continue  grinding away with a singular focus. When you’re a hammer, everything looks like  a nail; and for federal prosecutors focused on public corruption, the bigger the  public figure, the larger the scalp. Of course, the only thing sweeter than  bringing down a front-running presidential candidate would be nabbing one who  made his name prosecuting public corruption as a U.S. attorney.

The second reason Christie may be in worse shape now is the accumulation of  troubling information about David Samson. The Christie-appointed Port Authority  Commission chairman’s continued silence in the face of emails suggesting that he  wanted to “retaliate” against Port Authority staff who re-opened the lanes is disturbing enough. In  another e-mail, Samson accused the authority’s executive director, Patrick Foye  (who was appointed by New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo, a Democrat) of “stirring up  trouble” by talking about the lane closures. Both of these contemporaneous  emails strongly indicate that if – as Christie has maintained – Samson denied  knowing the reason for the lane closures, he was lying. If Samson, per the  emails, knew the truth then and told Christie, the governor has been lying.  Neither option suits Christie, which may explain why the internal investigatory  report essentially ignored the emails.

But far more problematic from a legal perspective are the myriad conflict of  interest questions raised by the involvement of Samson’s law firm, Wolff &  Samson, in Port Authority business. First came Hoboken Mayor Dawn Zimmer’s  allegation that New Jersey Lt. Gov. Kim Guadagno, a Christie ally, threatened to  withhold hurricane recovery aid to Hoboken – one of the state’s hardest hit  cities – unless Zimmer agreed to support a billion-dollar development project  spearheaded by a Wolff & Samson client. Guadagno strenuously denies  that accusation as “false” and “illogical,” but MSNBC’s Steve Kornacki obtained  emails related to the project sent from a Wolff & Samson attorney  representing the developer to a Hoboken city attorney, pressing Hoboken’s  attorney to speak with Samson and copying him on the email. If the Port  Authority chairman’s law associate was trying to muscle the city into  green-lighting a development—and keeping him in the loop on his activities—that  would obliterate the line between Samson’s personal business interests and his  public role as chairman. (more…)

Jeff Smith Breaks Down the Latest in Bridge-gate

Jeff Smith: Why Black Democratic Mayors and GOP Governors Are BFFs

From The Atlantic:

christie bookerThe paralysis of Atlanta—and its rising-star mayor, Democrat Kasim Reed—during the first of two recent storms highlighted more than just a possible managerial deficiency. The fact that Reed had spent the morning of the storm receiving an award from Republican Governor Nathan Deal—as well as Reed’s post-storm refusal to blame the flummoxed governor—suggests something broader: a durable alliance between the Obama 2012 pit-bull surrogate and his conservative Republican governor. Such an alliance is less rare than one might imagine. In an age when people lament partisan polarization, one area of stubborn bipartisan cooperation endures: the seemingly counter-intuitive pacts between black Democratic mayors and conservative Republican governors.

National political observers detected a similar relationship a thousand miles to the north in 2012, when then-Newark Mayor Cory Booker tied himself in knots to pretend he was considering a challenge to Governor Chris Christie. Most New Jersey political insiders understood this to be a necessary feint—one that a playful parody film featuring the two men seemed to confirm. After Senator Frank Lautenberg died, Christie repaid Booker—and did himself a favor—by spending $25 million in state funds on a special election for Senate just three weeks before his own November election. It wasn’t enough to simply not run against each other; Christie ensured that he and Booker would not be turning out their own supporters (who would be unlikely to split tickets) in the same election.

Reed’s actions—and his reluctance to endorse Deal’s highly touted Democratic opponent, state Senator Jason Carter, grandson of a former president—suggest this is a trend worth watching, especially as we see it happening elsewhere too. For example, the mayors of Ohio’s two largest cities—Cleveland’s Frank Jackson and Columbus’s Michael Coleman—are working closely with Republican Governor John Kasich and declined throughout 2013 to endorse likely Democratic gubernatorial nominee Ed FitzGerald.

Jeff SmithFrom the white governor’s side, there are several things to gain:

  1. Direct short-term electoral benefits: By dividing urban black mayors from their party, a Republican governor can do slightly better in cities for his reelection campaign, either by winning a premium of black voters above the roughly 10 percent a generic Republican can expect, or by minimizing black turnout (not through underhanded Ed Rollins or Allen Raymond sort of way, but by dampening the enthusiasm of black community leaders who are often critical to urban voter-mobilization efforts).
  2. Indirect short-term electoral benefits: By wrapping themselves in black political clothing, these white Republican governors are pulling a sort of reverse Sister Souljah: They are using black mayors as a vehicle to show white suburban women that they are not the scary, borderline-racist kind of Republican who howls about birth certificates, Kenya, and food-stamp presidents.
  3. Long-term electoral benefits: For more a decade—and with special urgency since Election Day 2012—we’ve heard about the Republican Party’s acute need to diversify its electoral base. The instant elevation of Marco Rubio into a likely presidential candidate —before he was even sworn in!—and a similar phenomenon with Dr. Ben Carson are proof of the party’s desperate quest for a candidate with appeal to minorities in a rapidly evolving nation. Of course, white Republican presidential aspirants won’t cede this niche to minority candidates; indeed, one of George W. Bush’s key selling points as he positioned himself for the 2000 Republican nomination was that he had received 49 percent of the Latino vote in his 1998 re-election. (It later emerged that this figure was inflated and the actual number was 40 percent).
    Chris Christie’s concerted efforts to win Latino and black votes (of which he won 51 percent and 21 percent, respectively, compared to Romney’s 27 percent and 6 percent) in 2013 suggest a similar thrust, albeit one that is likely obsolete now. Clearly, ambitious governors like Christie and Kasich use Democratic mayoral support—generally, the kind of tacit, “sitting-on-their-hands” support that accompanies tepid endorsements that mayors like Booker, Coleman, and Reed offer Democratic gubernatorial candidates—to burnish their electoral resumes for future national candidacies.
  4. Possible entrée into the Obama White House: Republican governors who may face future primaries aren’t always keen to be too closely associated with President Obama (Christie’s infamous post-Hurricane Sandy embrace notwithstanding). Forging close ties with mayors who acted as top Obama surrogates and can get calls to the White House quickly returned can come in handy for those whose public rhetoric may preclude close relationships with the Obama Administration.

Of course, benefits also accrue to the black mayor in these détentes. Here are a few:

  1. Direct economic benefits: This might include support for major projects (both public subsidies and assistance in lining up private-development financing), as well as political backing for initiatives that require state support. These create jobs and bolster the tax base in cities like Newark and Cleveland that have suffered steep declines. More broadly, Republican governors give mayors someone who can lean on legislative leaders on matters that aren’t too ideologically charged but can help the mayor’s city—often a leading state economic engine.
  2. Support for urban school-reform efforts: This may come in the form of political support (urging legislators or executive branch appointees), economic backing (money for performance pay bonuses or charter-school start-up, for instance), or a hybrid of both (Christie’s alliance with Booker to attract—and spend—Mark Zuckerberg’s $100 million gift to the state-controlled Newark public schools).
  3. Long-term political benefits: Ambitious black mayors hoping to be the next Obama—or at least the next Deval Patrick—can take advantage of their relationships with Republican governors to provide a veneer of moderation. The goal is to avoid the fate of candidates like former Charlotte Mayor Harvey Gantt, who are seen as being too liberal for a statewide race (an impression driven in part by their color, political-science research has suggested), even if they’re not particularly liberal.
  4. Fundraising: Governors can quietly introduce the mayors to their donors, and/or provide a sort of “Good Housekeeping Seal of Approval” with traditional Republican business donors, giving big-city mayors access to contributors who would not otherwise be inclined to support them.

But what are the costs for each side? The answer is, not many. Republican governors have little to lose by propping up big-city Democratic mayors; Republicans have almost no chance of ever competing for office in these areas. Though extra attention to urban areas could potentially have a slight demobilizing effect on rural conservatives, the effect is probably negligible.

Black mayors also have little to lose. Though their constituents have been pressed into action around election time, local black political elites have historically been excluded from state and national party strategy, instead being belatedly pressed into action around time. And of course, white statewide aspirants have been engaged in mini-Sister Souljah acts around the country for years, distancing themselves from the party’s urban base and focusing electoral appeals on white suburban and exurban swing voters. Consequently, some black Democrats feel scant party allegiance, making it easier to cozy up to Republican governors.

The biggest risk is that their Republican allies might lose. As mayors, they’ll be forced to travel to the state capital and supplicate to Democratic governors who can likely glean from a precinct analysis of urban election returns whether a mayor really worked to turn out voters in his home wards—and could probably ascertain a decided lack of enthusiasm from any number of actions or non-actions during election season.

Of course, these mayors wouldn’t be cozying up to the governors if they thought the Democratic candidate was likely to win. Politicians’ self-preservation instincts are as powerful as those of coyotes, who will without hesitation chew off a trapped limb in order to escape a bear trap.

Given the federal investigation swirling around Chris Christie, Cory Booker may already be detaching himself from his old ally. Likewise, given how widely panned Deal’s storm management performance was as we head into election season, Kasim Reed might want to consider gnawing off his own leg caught in the trap named Nathan Deal.

Jeff Smith: Why I Enjoyed Episode 1 of House of Cards, Season 2: MAJOR SPOILER ALERT

2043105(Check out Jonathan Miller’s “Why I Hated the Episode 1 of House of Cards.”)

I’m only one episode into Season 2 of House of Cards – unlike Jonathan, whose daughters are nearly grown, I don’t have any six hour chunks of time these days.

Also unlike Jonathan, I didn’t hate the first episode. Maybe I’ll change my mind after more episodes, but I quite enjoyed Episode 1. Sure, the Frank-Zoe (Kevin Spacey-Kata Mara) storyline infused Season 1 with some sexy tension – not to mention a scene that will forever haunt every father with an adult daughter who calls to wish him a Happy Father’s Day. But Mara is not irreplaceable on the show; I fully expect the emergence of another character who bring an erotic charge to the show. And frankly, I didn’t find Mara’s frequent coital disinterest – be it with Spacey or boyfriend Sebastian Arcelus (playing journalist Lucas Goodwin) – to be particularly sexy.

Jeff SmithJonathan’s other critique – that Frank’s murder of Zoe was gratuitous and unbelievable – strikes me as more legitimate. But still, it’s understandable. As someone who compounded a ticky-tack crime (approving a meeting between two former campaign aides and a consultant who planned to send out a postcard about one of my opponents) with a much more serious one (lying to the feds about whether I was aware of said meeting), I totally get how things can escalate as one’s grip on power is threatened, whether by a federal investigation or a sharp, ambitious young journalist whose knowledge of your MO has become more intimate than you originally planned.

Did Frank set out to be a murderer? Of course not. At first he just wanted to put Peter Russo in a position of power where he could leverage him for his own use. However, when Russo became a serious threat to Frank’s ambition, he had to be dealt with. Perhaps not so brutally, but once it became clear that Russo had no interest in playing ball, Frank needed a solution. Was the murder of Zoe – in a crowded subway station –riskier than Russo’s murder? Undoubtedly. But once you get away with something once, it becomes much easier to believe you can get away with it again. (That said, Frank really should’ve worn gloves.)

Aside from the Mara debate, Episode 1’s final scene left me confident that showrunner Beau Willimon’s writing chops are intact. “Every kitten grows up to be a cat,” intones Frank, after greeting the viewer for one of the show’s trademark soliloquys.

They seem so harmless at first – small, quiet, lapping up their saucer of milk.  But once their claws get long enough, they draw blood….sometimes from the hand that feeds them. For those of us climbing to the top of the food chain, there can be no mercy. There is but one rule: hunt, or be hunted.

And he is right. For most real-life politicians, this mercilessness takes a different form – cutting off a preacher who has made incendiary comments, or a prison-bound friend and colleague – but hey, this is television, and so to some degree we suspend reality. But the thought processes that cause Frank to desperately cling to power by any means necessary are as real as they get. Trust me.

Jeff Smith Tweets the Christie Scandal

Jeff Smith @JeffSmithMO Feb 2

Think Wildstein a distraction now. If he had the goods he’d be giving em up below radar. The ones feeling real heat likely Baroni/Samson.

Jeff Smith @JeffSmithMO Feb 2

Immunity grant Wildstein seeking pie in sky. 5K.1.1 letter in which feds request lenient sentence aftr substantial cooperation more frequent

Jeff Smith @JeffSmithMO Feb 2

The impt thing about Wildstein letter isn’t anything in it. It’s degree to which it may motivate others to flip while they still have value.

Jeff Smith @JeffSmithMO Feb 2

Once the feds have the dude you were gonna rat out, you’re useless – and your cooperation agreement evaporates. Thus the potential rush here

Jeff Smith @JeffSmithMO Feb 2

Federal targets are like poker players: the weak hands act strong, while the strong hands stay quiet. So Wildstein may be in real trouble here

Jeff Smith @JeffSmithMO Feb 2

Interesting to see Wildstein beg for attn. Feds have likely moved on to others with more/better cards to play on non-Ft Lee issues.

Jeff Smith @JeffSmithMO Feb 2

Big Christie problem now: tenuousness of power position renders notion that he’ll “take care” of allies who eat it increasingly implausible.

Jeff Smith @JeffSmithMO Feb 2

Smart- Legal survival trumps politics MT @lis_Smith “Christie has not taken q’s at a news conference for 21 days.” … …

Jeff Smith @JeffSmithMO Feb 2

Bridgegate fed crimes a stretch. No breach of honest services statute post-Conrad Black. W/ WH hopes fading,obstruction for pol reasons nuts

Jeff Smith @JeffSmithMO Feb 3

Silly how pundits write, “just as things were calming down for Christie…” Things were heating up, not calming; most US Attys aren’t sieves

Jeff Smith @JeffSmithMO Feb 3

Pundit silliness #2: suggesting Wildstein’s letter indicates “heating up”. Media confuses letter aimed at them for actual event of import.

Jeff Smith @JeffSmithMO Feb 3

We knew from Day 1 Wildstein itching to sing; his letter impt only insofar as it might goad waverers to sing before their info made redundnt

Jeff Smith @JeffSmithMO Feb 3

A snitch can give the Feds every morsel he’s got, but if they already have it or if it’s not on the guy they want, he’ll get zilch for it.