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Trump: Christie ‘Can’t Win Because Of His Past’

By Andrew Seidman, The Philadelphia Inquirer (TNS)

Republican presidential front-runner Donald Trump unleashed a fusillade of attacks on rival Gov. Chris Christie on Monday, criticizing him on everything from New Jersey’s economy to the George Washington Bridge scandal.

Trump’s remarks came in response to an editorial written by the publisher of the New Hampshire Union-Leader, which called the celebrity real-estate mogul’s campaign “an insult to the intelligence of Republican voters.”

Trump accused Christie — who was endorsed by the Union-Leader and is gaining ground in Granite State polls — of encouraging the publisher, Joseph W. McQuaid, to write the editorial.

“This is the way Chris is,” Trump said in an interview with WMUR, a New Hampshire TV station.

McQuaid is “backing Chris Christie and it’s ridiculous to back Chris,” Trump said, declaring New Jersey was the “worst state in the union in terms of economics.”

Trump pointed to New Jersey’s high taxes and nine credit downgrades that Wall Street ratings agencies have issued to the state’s debt since Christie took office in 2010, echoing a criticism former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush recently made.

Christie has boasted of vetoing tax hikes passed by New Jersey’s Democratic-controlled Legislature and argued that the state was worse off before he took office.

Unprompted, Trump also recalled Christie’s greeting of President Barack Obama in 2012 when Hurricane Sandy hit the Jersey Shore on the eve of the presidential election — an episode that roiled conservatives.

“He was so warm, and so happy to have Barack Obama in the state of New Jersey that I personally think it could have cost (Mitt) Romney the election,” Trump said.

Upon seeing Christie interact with Obama, Trump said Monday, he even thought Christie “was going to vote for Obama.”

A spokeswoman for Christie’s campaign didn’t respond to a request for comment.

Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul reprised that line of attack in the first GOP debate in August, accusing Christie of giving Obama “a big hug.”

Christie’s record in New Jersey had gone mostly unnoticed during the campaign until recently, as the governor started to climb in the polls in New Hampshire, which holds the first primary on Feb. 9.

On Monday, Trump also declared it was “impossible to believe” Christie “didn’t know about” the George Washington Bridge lane closures in September 2013. Trump has suggested as much before.

“Chris can’t win because of his past,” Trump said. “I don’t believe you’ve heard the last of the George Washington Bridge, because there’s no way he didn’t know about the closure of the George Washington Bridge, and all of his people are now going on trial in the very near future. And they’re going on criminal trial. There’s no way he didn’t know about it.”

Prosecutors say three former Christie allies closed lanes to the bridge as part of a conspiracy to punish the Democratic mayor of Fort Lee, in Bergen County, because he didn’t endorse the governor’s re-election.

One has pleaded guilty and is cooperating with the government. Two others have pleaded not guilty; their trial is scheduled to begin in April.

Trump attacked Christie even as he lobbed insults at McQuaid, “a real low life.”

McQuaid didn’t respond to a request for comment.

Trump said McQuaid in the past had asked him to play golf, eat lunch with him at his country club, and place ads in his newspaper.

In addition, McQuaid requested a “strange thing,” Trump said. When Christie was demoted to the so-called undercard debate in November, Trump said Monday, McQuaid asked Trump to tweet that Christie belonged on the main stage. (This alleged request came before the newspaper endorsed Christie for president.)

On Nov. 6, a few days before the debate, Trump tweeted, “I think it would be a good idea — and fair — to include @GovChristie & @MikeHuckabeeGOP in the debate. Both solid & good guys. @FoxBusiness.”

©2015 The Philadelphia Inquirer. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

Photo: Republican U.S. presidential candidate Governor Chris Christie speaks during the Republican presidential debate in Las Vegas, Nevada December 15, 2015.    REUTERS/Mike Blake


New Jersey’s GOP Lawmakers Blast Bridgegate Committee

By Andrew Seidman, The Philadelphia Inquirer (TNS)

TRENTON, N.J. — A New jersey state legislative committee’s investigation into last year’s lane closures at the George Washington Bridge was a cover to “take down” Gov. Chris Christie and boost the political career of its co-chairman, GOP lawmakers charged in a new report Monday.

Democrats on the New Jersey Legislative Select Committee on Investigation, led by Assemblyman John S. Wisniewski, “repeatedly misled the public; manipulated media coverage via false leads, seemingly unlawful leaks, and baseless claims; charged taxpayers millions of dollars to promote political fiction; and accomplished nothing meaningful for the public good,” the 119-page report says.

Wisniewski countered that the committee’s work “may well serve as a great example, perhaps the greatest example, of legislative oversight in our state’s history.”

Most of the taxpayer money cited by the GOP refers to billing by Christie’s outside counsel.

Republicans issued their “minority statement” Monday morning before the committee met to publicly release a 136-page report written by its outside counsel, Jenner & Block of Chicago. The eight Democrats on the 12-member panel voted to make the report public, while the four Republicans voted against it.

That report, leaked to reporters last week, said there was “no conclusive evidence” linking Christie, a possible GOP presidential contender in 2016, to the lane closures.

Like a report written by a law firm retained by Christie’s office to investigate the matter, the Jenner & Block report said the “principal actors” in the lane closures were two then-Christie allies: Bridget Anne Kelly, the governor’s former deputy chief of staff, and David Wildstein, a former official of the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey.

Wildstein’s attorney declined to comment Monday, and Kelly’s could not be reached.

The January disclosure of Kelly’s Aug. 13, 2013, email to Wildstein — “Time for some traffic problems in Fort Lee,” to which Wildstein responded, “Got it” — transformed the bridge mystery into a scandal.

Even if Kelly and Wildstein acted alone, the committee’s report says, “they did so with perceived impunity” in a government environment in which “they felt empowered to act as they did, with little regard for public safety risks or the steadily mounting public frustration.”

Gaps remain in the public knowledge of the lane closures and their aftermath, Wisniewski said, in part because the committee has refrained from interviewing key players at the request of the U.S. Attorney’s Office, which is conducting its own investigation.

The lane closures spanned Sept. 9 to 13, 2013, causing massive traffic jams.

One lingering question, Wisniewski said, was what Christie texted to one of his senior staffers during a legislative hearing on the lane closures last year.

Christie and the staffer, Regina Egea, then head of the authorities unit and now his chief of staff, exchanged 12 texts that day, according to phone records obtained by the committee from AT&T via subpoena. But attorneys for the governor’s office could not locate the contents in response to the committee’s subpoena request, indicating the texts had been deleted.

Egea told lawmakers under oath that she had sent a text to the governor and subsequently deleted it, as she commonly does. The phone records show Christie initiated the exchange, contrary to Egea’s testimony, the report said.

Christie said he did not recall receiving a text from Egea that day.

“I’m not sure how this is very different from the actions that Bridget Kelly took,” Wisniewski told reporters Monday, referring to an email in which Kelly directed a subordinate to delete an incriminating email about the lane closures.

Last week, Randy M. Mastro, an attorney for the firm representing the governor’s office, said the legislative report had confirmed that “there is not a shred of evidence Gov. Christie knew anything about” the lane closures beforehand “or that any current member of his staff was involved in that decision.”

Republicans on the legislative panel criticized Wisniewski as an “opportunistic and power-hungry politician” bent on using the committee as a political weapon to “take down” and succeed Christie as governor.

GOP state Sen. Kevin O’Toole, reading from his party’s report, hammered Democrats as having made incendiary comments on national television regarding the possibility of impeachment and asserting that laws had been broken. According to the Republican report, Democratic members of the committee gave more than 100 TV interviews on the bridge scandal.

The GOP also said a number of Democrats on the panel had conflicts of interest in their business dealings with regard to the Port Authority, a charge Democratic leaders denied.

And Republicans questioned why Jenner & Block, which represented New Jersey Democrats during the redistricting process and is a contributor to Democratic campaigns, was retained as counsel for an independent investigation.

O’Toole said it was “the constant and persistent leaking of subpoenaed documents” that “proved to be the greatest disservice to the integrity of this committee.” Republicans said they had referred their report to acting Attorney General John J. Hoffman and asked him to appoint a special prosecutor to investigate whether the committee had broken any laws.

A spokesman for the attorney general’s office said the report would be “reviewed appropriately” and declined further comment.

Democrats noted that Republicans did not actually dispute the facts of the Jenner & Block report.

“It was not some political witch hunt,” said Assembly Majority Leader Louis D. Greenwald, a Democrat.

There was debate over the cost of the committee’s report. Republicans said its price tag was about $9 million, but $6.5 million of that comes from invoices submitted to the governor’s office by its outside counsel, Gibson, Dunn & Crutcher L.L.P.

And it’s unclear what portion of Gibson Dunn’s billing is related to the legislative inquiry; it has responded to federal subpoenas as well.

Photo: Gage Skidmore via Flickr

Top GOP Lawmakers In New Jersey Pass On Chance To Challenge Booker

By Andrew Seidman, The Philadelphia Inquirer

TRENTON, N.J. — Even as the national GOP works to take control of the Senate in November’s midterm elections — and high-profile challengers crop up in states that had seemed out of play — New Jersey’s top Republican political talent is passing on a chance to try to take out U.S. Sen. Cory A. Booker (D-NJ).

In last fall’s special Senate election, Booker won a closer-than-expected race against Republican Steve Lonegan, whose campaign attracted support from conservative heroes such as former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin, Texas Gov. Rick Perry and U.S. Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky.

Republicans boasted that they had exposed Booker, the former Newark mayor, as a celebrity who preferred late-night talk shows to answering hard policy questions. But none of the candidates who filed by Monday’s deadline to run in June’s GOP primary has held elective office.

Experienced state legislators opted out, though they would have been able to run without risking their seats.

“Some of the party’s better candidates interested in exploring (a run) kind of froze the field for a long time,” said Bill Layton, chairman of the Burlington County GOP. “That put us behind the eight ball in terms of candidate selection. As a result, the candidates are off to weak start.”

Why the hesitation? A Republican hasn’t been elected to the Senate in New Jersey in more than 40 years, and registered Democrats outnumber Republicans by 700,000 voters. And the George Washington Bridge lane-closure scandal has engulfed Gov. Chris Christie, the leader of the state party.

“Some people think the Republican Party gets together and makes decisions as a unit. These are all individual decisions by individual elected officials,” said Assembly Minority Leader Jon Bramnick, R-Union, who cited personal reasons in deciding not to run.

The national political climate may favor Republicans — President Barack Obama’s approval ratings are low, as is support for his health care law — but in New Jersey, Booker still enjoys significant advantages, political observers said.

Among them, far greater statewide name recognition than any of his potential challengers, formidable fundraising prowess, and an established campaign infrastructure.

Booker spent more than $11 million on his election last year and had $1.8 million cash on hand at the end of 2013, according to Federal Election Commission data. Layton said he thought the Republican nominee would need $15 million to compete, given the expensive Philadelphia and New York media markets.

The Republicans planning to run had not raised any money as of the end-of-year filing deadline, according to FEC data. Another report is due April 15.

“I don’t know a single Republican I’d put on the ballot in New Jersey that would have a shot at Booker,” said Jennifer Duffy, senior editor of the Cook Political Report, a nonpartisan handicapping site.

“Obviously, with Christie’s problems, he wouldn’t be within striking distance right now,” she said. “It’s just not a good time, not a good state. And Booker hasn’t done anything to attract a challenge.”

Voters do not appear to be itching for a change: 47 percent approve of the job Booker is doing, compared with 20 percent who disapprove, and a majority say he deserves to be re-elected, according to a March 3 Monmouth University/Asbury Park Press poll.

No more than 10 percent of poll respondents had any opinion of the Republicans vying to challenge Booker: Murray Sabrin, a professor at Ramapo College, who has twice run unsuccessful statewide campaigns; Jeff Bell, who knocked off the state’s last incumbent Republican senator in the 1978 primary, but lost in the general election; Brian Goldberg of West Orange, who runs a concrete business; and Rich Pezzullo, a Monmouth County businessman.

“The Republican Party really has for the past several years revolved around the personality of Governor Christie,” said Brigid Harrison, a political scientist at Montclair State University. “We don’t see this kind of deep bench of qualified competitors who have strong name recognition throughout the state, because the spotlight really has been monopolized by him.”

This isn’t the first time the Republican establishment has written off a Senate race. In 1990, Christie Todd Whitman, then a Somerset County freeholder, won the GOP nomination and lost a close race to Democratic incumbent Bill Bradley with 47 percent of the vote. Three years later, she shifted her sights to the governor’s office and defeated Gov. Jim Florio.

“That’s usually why you run in this election: get your name recognition up, show what you can do, and prepare yourself for other races,” said Patrick Murray, a pollster at Monmouth University. “This is just an indication that there’s very little field talent.”

Regardless of who becomes the nominee, Republicans are betting that a tide of anti-Obamacare sentiment will roll through New Jersey and knock off Booker, who is seeking his first full term. Last year’s special election was to finish the term of the late Frank R. Lautenberg.

The health care law is relatively unpopular in the Garden State: 51 percent of registered voters support repealing it, while 43 percent oppose doing so, according to a March 4 Rutgers-Eagleton poll.

“The political climate is so bad right now for Democrats that whoever wins the nomination has a very good chance of being a U.S. senator for six years,” said Rick Shaftan, a Republican strategist who advised Lonegan last year. “It’s going to be a complete debacle” for Democrats, he said.

Booker’s record in Newark, meantime, has come under additional scrutiny since he left office. In February, the state comptroller released a scathing report alleging that from 2008 to 2011, a nonprofit that managed the city’s watershed properties “recklessly and improperly spent millions of dollars of public funds with little to no oversight.”

Booker, the report said, did not attend any of the nonprofit’s board meetings, even though he was chair. He delegated that responsibility to the city’s business administrator, but when that official resigned in 2010, Booker didn’t send a replacement to the meetings.

Booker has condemned the wrongdoing alleged in the report and said his efforts to improve accountability at the watershed nonprofit were blocked. When problems emerged last year, Booker told the Newark Star-Ledger, he brought the nonprofit’s operations under “the direct control of the city.”

The Republican nominee for U.S. Senate “will and should be all over that” report, said Chris Russell, a New Jersey GOP political consultant.

On Monday, Booker’s campaign announced that it had submitted nearly 16,000 petitions — well above the 1,000 signatures needed to qualify for June’s primary — “a clear indication of the grassroots enthusiasm and organization backing Senator Booker,” campaign manager Brendan Gill said in a statement.

Murray, the pollster, said Booker “wants to alleviate anyone’s concerns that he’s going to take this election for granted.”

AP Photo/Jessica Hill

Lawmakers Issue 20 Subpoenas In New Jersey Bridge Scandal

By Andrew Seidman and Maddie Hanna

The Philadelphia Inquirer


TRENTON, N.J. — A Democratic lawmaker leading the investigation of the George Washington Bridge scandal that has engulfed the Christie administration issued 20 more subpoenas to individuals and organizations Thursday.

Assemblyman John S. Wisniewski, who leads one of two special legislative inquiry panels created Thursday, said he would not identify the recipients of the subpoenas — 17 individuals and three organizations — until they had been served.

Late Thursday, a Democratic source confirmed that former top Christie aides Bridget Anne Kelly and Bill Stepien had been subpoenaed, along with the Christie campaign organization. Also subpoenaed was Matt Mowers, Christie’s former regional political director, who is now the executive director of the New Hampshire Republican Party.

“Matt is an extremely talented worker and a valued member of our team,” Jennifer Horn, the New Hampshire GOP chairwoman, said in a statement. “He has not been accused of any wrongdoing and there is zero indication that he is in any way connected to the decision to close the bridge lanes.”

Wisniewski’s subpoenas came on a day when both houses in the Legislature voted unanimously to expand their investigation, even as they disagreed on how best to proceed.

Earlier Thursday, Christie’s office announced that it had retained a former assistant U.S. attorney and top aide to former New York City Mayor Rudolph Giuliani as outside legal counsel. Giuliani has been a Christie supporter.

Legislators made clear that they wanted to continue the inquiry into how and why some of Christie’s deputies orchestrated a plot in September to shut down access lanes leading from Fort Lee to the world’s busiest bridge. But Assembly Democrats rebuffed an attempt by the Senate to establish a joint committee.

So the Senate launched its own separate investigation, in a move that suggested to some that Democrats in both houses are seeking to claim credit for tackling corruption.

“That doesn’t make any sense,” Elizabeth Mayor Chris Bollwage, a Democrat, said on MSNBC of the two committees. “It’s a waste of taxpayer money and it’s all about who can get on television first.”

Just hours after establishing those committees, Republicans accused Wisniewski of running a partisan “committee of one.”

Last week, Assembly Democrats made public thousands of pages of documents they obtained via previous subpoenas showing that at least one member of Christie’s inner circle had corresponded with one of the governor’s appointees at the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey about creating gridlock in Fort Lee, apparently to punish the borough’s Democratic mayor for not endorsing the Republican governor.

“Time for some traffic problems in Fort Lee,” Kelly, Christie’s deputy chief of staff, wrote in an Aug. 13 e-mail to David Wildstein, the appointee.

“Got it,” he replied.

Christie fired Kelly and severed ties with Stepien, another close political adviser, last week. Wildstein and another Christie appointee at the Port Authority, former Republican State Sen. Bill Baroni, resigned last month.

Baroni had said the lane closures were part of a traffic study overseen by Wildstein. On Thursday, Sen. Jay Rockefeller, D.-W.Va., who has also inquired about the closures, said information provided by the Port Authority showed “zero evidence” of a “legitimate” traffic study.

The documents released last week showed that a number of Christie’s staff members, including newly appointed chief of staff Regina Egea and Michael Drewniak, the governor’s press secretary, were notified of the traffic jams as early as September.

On Thursday, Senate Majority Leader Loretta Weinberg, a Democrat, the chairwoman of the new Senate committee and an early critic of the lane closures, said she intends to subpoena Egea as well as David Samson, chairman of the board of commissioners at the Port Authority.

Christie appeared in Manahawkin on Thursday to tout Sandy recovery but did not address the controversy directly.

Christie said he had “accepted the task of leading this state for eight years, not four years, and no one, I can assure you, ever told me or anybody on my team that it was going to be easy.”

The governor’s office said its outside legal team is being led by Randy Mastro, former assistant U.S. attorney for the Southern District of New York, where he specialized in organized-crime cases. Mastro is a partner at Gibson, Dunn & Crutcher L.L.P.

“Gov. Christie made clear last week that he will conduct an internal review to uncover the facts surrounding the lane closures in Fort Lee,” the governor’s office said in a statement. “His administration is fully cooperating with the U.S. attorney inquiry and other appropriate inquiries and requests for information.”

They did not say how much the firm would charge.

“Just as the outside counsel hired by Assembly Democrats will be compensated by the public, so too will the team hired by the administration,” said Christie spokesman Colin Reed.

The Assembly retained Reid Schar, a former federal prosecutor who tried former Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich, as outside counsel to assist in its investigation. The Assembly will pay partners at Schar’s firm $350 an hour, plus other charges, out of its budget.

On the Assembly floor Thursday, Wisniewski said his investigation’s goal was to restore the public’s trust and work to prevent similar abuses of power from recurring.

“We have no predetermined outcome. We have no predetermined agenda,” he said. “We’ve been following a trail that followed the operations and finances of the Port Authority. … Unexpectedly we wound up in the governor’s office.”

The subpoenas issued Thursday ask for documents related to the traffic jams, Wisniewski said. He said his committee would review documents before compelling testimony.

Wisniewski said he did not anticipate receiving any documents until February.

Republicans commended Wisniewski for uncovering possible wrongdoing but expressed concern that they had not been informed of new developments in a timely manner or consulted on key decisions, such as hiring outside counsel to assist with the Assembly’s investigation.

“Here we are, an hour into this process, and the bipartisanship is falling apart,” GOP Assemblyman Greg McGuckin said at a news conference after the special committee’s first meeting.

Over objections from Republicans, the committee authorized a resolution that gives Wisniewski, as chair, the authority to issue subpoenas, and control and determine access to documents the committee receives.

In the Senate, several Republicans voiced support for the investigation but questioned what shape it would take. As in the Assembly, the resolution passed by the Senate gave the committee authority to investigate “abuse of government power” including, “but not limited to,” the bridge incident.

Cautioning against a rush to judgment was GOP Sen. Kevin O’Toole, a Christie ally who was among the three Republicans appointed to the committee.

Division was also evident among Democrats on Thursday. In explaining why the lower house had not formed a joint committee with the Senate, Assembly Majority Leader Louis D. Greenwald, a Democrat, said on the floor: “We are way ahead of where the Senate is. You want to slow this down? You think the people of Fort Lee want to slow this down so (the Senate) can catch up?”

Photo:  Joe Shlabotnik via Flickr