Branstad on Christie’s handling of bridge scandal: ‘That is what I call leadership’

Governor Branstad (left) and Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack hold a press conference in the Capitol building.  -- photo by Darin Leach
Governor Branstad (left) and Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack — photo by Darin Leach (2012)

Amid the fallout from New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie’s bridge scandal, Iowa Gov. Terry Branstad rose to the embroiled governor’s defense.

When asked about the two-hour news conference Christie held last week in response to numerous misconduct allegations, Branstad had nothing but praise for the governor. The Des Moines Register reports:

Christie was “very direct” and answered every question posed to him in a humble manner, Branstad said. He noted that Christie expressed deep disappointment at what happened and got rid of staff who were responsible.

“That is what I call leadership,” Branstad said of Christie, who has been mentioned as a possible 2016 Republican presidential candidate.

Branstad concedes that, “Being governor, there are a lot of things that you don’t know about until after the fact.” He later called the situation “very unfortunate” and admitted that “these kind of things can happen.” The full report is available here.

Christie, it’s worth noting, campaigned for Branstad in 2010.

For those still catching up on the bridge scandal, subpoenaed documents indicate multiple lanes of the George Washington Bridge were shut down in 2013 as a possible act of political retribution against Mayor Mark Sokolich of Fort Lee, New Jersey (who is no friend of Christie’s). Attributed to a traffic study, the lane closings caused massive traffic pileups for several days. The internal memos do not bode well for the Christie administration.

This is not a simple lapse in authority as Branstad indicates. This is gross negligence and possible corruption on a significant scale. Chalking it up to “These kinds of things can happen” implies that a governor should not be held accountable for the reckless actions of his or her staff. This is absurd.

Whether or not Christie was aware of the damning correspondence between his staff and others, it’s clear that this kind of thing doesn’t just “happen.”

When (now-former) Deputy Chief of Staff Bridget Anne Kelly writes, “Time for some traffic problems in Fort Lee,” in a message to (now-former) Port Authority appointee David Wildstein (who later replied, “Got it”), this behavior reflects the whole of the Christie administration.

When an unknown individual sends a message to Wildstein about school buses getting caught up in traffic jams and Wildstein responds, “They are the children of Buono voters,” this sort of malicious behavior once again reflects the whole of the Christie administration.

“Buono” is a reference to Barbara Buono, Christie’s Democratic opponent during last November’s gubernatorial election.

When an individual, redacted for reasons unknown, later sends a message to Wildstein asking, “Is it wrong that I’m smiling?” and Wildstein replies, “No,” this too reflects the Christie administration.

Former presidential adviser David Gergen speculates:

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“Sometimes the boss does not order something,” Gergen said, describing the Nixon White House during the Watergate scandal. “I don’t know whether Nixon ordered Watergate, but I can guarantee you that people who carried out Watergate thought that’s what he would have wanted. There’s an environment in which you find yourself sometimes on staff when things don’t have to be said. You sort of know.”

Mayor Sokolich eventually sent an email to Bill Baroni, Christie’s top executive appointee at the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey:

We should talk. Someone needs to tell me that the recent traffic debacle was not punitive in nature. The last four reporters that contacted me suggest that the people they are speaking with absolutely believe it to be punishment. Try as I may to dispel these rumors I am having a tough time.


Sokolich’s hunch was well-founded. Christie has since fired Kelly, and accepted the resignations of both Wildstein and Baroni. The governor has gone on to express great disappointment. “I am embarrassed and humiliated by the conduct of some of the people on my team,” he said during last week’s two-hour conference.

Even if Christie was ignorant of this correspondence, Branstad’s defense (and subsequent praise) of the governor is unacceptable. It sends a message that the apparent ‘enforcers’ on a governor’s staff are able to act as rogues, and so long as the governor plugs his or her ears, such staff are not actually representing (nor reflecting) the governor who appoints them.

This is not a case of “these kinds of things can happen,” as Branstad puts it.

It’s a chilling denial of responsibility, and we should expect more from our governors.