The starting point for any allegation of executive office cover-up, like the one surrounding New Jersey Governor Chris Christie, is always the same: What did he know and when did he know it?
Eleven weeks after Christie held a marathon press conference to address questions about the bridge scandal that has enveloped his administration, we still don't know the answer to the central question in the case: When did Christie find out that the city of Fort Lee had been brought to a four-day stand still when at least one senior member of his staff teamed up with his appointee at the Port Authority to purposefully clog traffic lanes?
The release today of a self-investigation undertaken by Christie's handpicked attorneys, and at a cost of at least $1 million to New Jersey taxpayers, does little to exonerate Christie on that question.
In fact, the report confirms that David Wildstein, the Christie appointee at the Port Authority who remains at the center of the scandal, insists he told the governor, in real time, about the lane closures on September 11, 2013, and had detailed that meeting to one of Christie's aides in December. Christie claims he doesn't recall that conversation and from that he said/he said stand off, the internal probe generously declares Christie version is be believed and that he didn't find out until weeks later about the Fort Lee fiasco.
Miraculously, in a scandal that brought weeks of relentlessly bad news for Christie in January and February, as revelation after revelation painted a picture of a deeply corrupt administration, his new paid-for investigation couldn't find much bad news for the governor. The report, according to Christie's attorney Randy Mastro was "a search for the truth." It just so happens the reports is also "a vindication of Gov. Christie," as Mastro stressed to reporters today.
Fact: Mastro served as a New York City deputy mayor under Mayor Rudy Giuliani, who has been perhaps Christie's most public defender since the scandal broke in January.
Christie aides are hoping the new report, which reads more like a legal brief on the governor's behalf and which failed to interview key players, represents a political turning point for Christie who has aspirations to run for president in 2016. But whether that strategy works depends a lot on how the national press treats the new report and the public relations push behind it. (Fact: The Beltway press has a long history of showering Christie with adoring coverage.)
For the first time since the scandal broke in January, Christie sits for a one-on-one interview with a national media figure, Diane Sawyer, which will air on ABC's World News With Diane Sawyer tonight. The interview will be a good indication of how the Beltway press treats the new report and if it's willing to allow Christie to clear himself of any wrongdoing before the U.S. Attorney's office and New Jersey lawmakers in Trenton complete their own investigations.
A key to the ABC interview will be if Sawyer presses Christie on when he knew that roadways were being jammed, which remains the central point. Over time, Christie has given an array of answers to that very simple question.
But a review of the governor's public statements on the controversy shows he has never said precisely when he first heard about the closures, giving slightly different explanations on three separate occasions and at one point describing his knowledge as "an evolving thing."
What Christie does now when asked about his knowledge of the lane closings is to stress he wasn't involved in the implementation of the plot.
This has probably been the most important strategic move Christie's office has made since January: convince the press that the key question of the scandal is whether the governor planned the lane closures, not whether he knew about the wrongdoing in real time. Time and again this winter when asked, Christie has been very careful, and very emphatic, in insisting he was not involved in the plotting of the dirty tricks scheme; he had no advance knowledge.
From a February appearance on a radio call-in show:
"The most important issue is, did I know anything about the plan to close these lanes, did I authorize it, did I know about it, did I approve it, did I have any knowledge of it beforehand. And the answer is still the same: It's unequivocally no."
But again, that's not really the question at hand. Think back to Richard Nixon. The pressing, constitutional question wasn't whether Nixon himself had drawn up the harebrained scheme to break into Democratic Party offices inside the Watergate apartment complex in 1972. It was whether Nixon knew his underlings were running a criminal enterprise from inside the executive offices.
The same holds true for Christie today. And the fact that his paid legal counsel could not produce a report that erased doubts about the governor's knowledge of the dirty tricks campaign poses a political problem.
Meanwhile, will the new initiative be enough the rekindle the love affair that had blossomed between the Beltway press and the N.J. governor? During that media romance, Christie was relentlessly and adoringly depicted as a Straight Shooter; an authentic and bipartisan Every Man, a master communicator who was willing to cut through the stagecraft and delivers hard truths.
Following Christie's re-election last November, the admiration reached a new, sugary high. "Chris Christie is someone who is magical in the way politicians can be magical," Time's Mark Halperin announced on Meet The Press that week. Added Time colleague Michael Scherer in a cover story later that month, "He's a workhorse with a temper and a tongue, the guy who loves his mother and gets it done."
We'll soon see if the press uses the new, one-sided report to return to its days of glowing Christie coverage.