If Chris Christie knew, his presidential ambitions are kaput.
There's a reason why nearly everyone who came to Christie's defense left a wide-open caveat — if he's telling the truth. Friday's allegation that Christie knew about the George Washington Bridge lane closures, coming from the lawyer for his Port Authority official, David Wildstein, suggests he was lying during his epic two-hour press conference by claiming no knowledge of the situation.
"Christie would have to be the world's biggest fool to say what he said in the way he said it if he did have any responsibility," former George W. Bush spokesman Ari Fleischer told me after the governor's press conference. "If there's anything that contradicts what he said at the press conference, it would make it almost impossible for him to survive."
One Democratic operative who was always skeptical of Christie's outright denials pointed to other famous politicians caught in scandal who lied in order to forestall immediate consequences. Bill Clinton lied about Monica Lewinsky, John Edwards lied about his affair and child with staffer Rielle Hunter, and Anthony Weiner misled reporters about his online sexting. All hoped to buy time, desperately wishing that the media would turn its scrutiny elsewhere.
If Wildstein's allegations are accurate — he's seeking immunity from prosecutors for his own role in the scandal — Christie's cover-up will be even more brazen. A former U.S. attorney, Christie is fully aware of the legal jeopardy he put himself into with unequivocal denials of involvement, all for only a short-term public-relations gain. He fired two of his closest loyalists, even though they may have been acting on his orders — or at least with his consent — all along.
Christie's approval ratings were already taking a nosedive even before Friday afternoon's revelations hit. His personal favorability in both national and New Jersey polls dropped underwater, and increasing numbers of voters have expressed skepticism that Christie knew nothing about what was happening under him. His main selling point for any presidential campaign was electability — that he was popular with independents and some Democrats — and that is no longer operative, even if he can recover from this scandal.
Depending on where the evidence leads, there are a lot of other political implications for the New Jersey governor. Can Christie stay on as chairman of the Republican Governors Association under the cloud of scandal? Republicans, already facing a bruised brand, won't want to have a scandal-plagued governor as the face of their party. It's hard to see even the most enthusiastic prospective donors, like Home Depot cofounder Ken Langone, sticking on the bandwagon. And it's hard to see how Christie will be able to accomplish much in his second term with investigations poised to continue indefinitely.
Christie's downfall is a textbook lesson in how many politicians' public personas often conflict with reality. Christie has assiduously developed an image as someone who was above politics to get things done, but in reality, he was a product of a New Jersey political system where trading favors for political support is ubiquitous.
As I wrote this month, Christie's downfall stems from his hubris — the belief that he could win over many Democratic officials to a landslide reelection victory, and his confidence that he could use his impressive rhetorical skills to talk his way out of this mess. On both counts, he got what he wanted initially, only to see the house of cards collapse.