PRESIDENT TRUMP’S ATTORNEY GENERAL? — PART 2

Part 1 of this series discussed the possibility that, if Donald Trump wins the election, New Jersey Governor Chris Christie could become his attorney general of the United States. After all, he was the first major Republican presidential candidate to endorse Trump. With Christie’s popularity in his home state dropping to historic lows (now below 30 percent) and term limits foreclosing a run for another term as governor, he had to do something to salvage his political ambitions.

Sure, he didn’t get the vice-presidential nomination that he reportedly craved. But shouldn’t he reap some reward for his remarkable public scenes with Trump? In one, Christie appeared to be physically ill — or a hostage. In another, Trump mocked him to get a cheap laugh.

About That Bridgegate Thing

The prospect of Christie becoming the nation’s top law enforcement officer isn’t funny. The Bridgegate trial has resurrected old questions that a Christie-appointed independent investigator was supposed to answer almost three years ago. It has also raised new ones.

Christie has steadfastly denied having any knowledge about the George Washington Bridge lane closures before or during the 2013 scandal that culminated in criminal charges against his top aides. Some of those aides have now sworn that Christie knew more than he has admitted.

In that respect, they have confirmed Donald Trump’s declaration during a December 2015 Republican primary rally: “He knew about it. He totally knew about it.”

The Four Other Key Players

In a federal courtroom on September 27, 2016, a senior official at the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey (and Christie’s high school classmate), David Wildstein, testified that Christie knew what was happening on the bridge during the days that traffic was backed up for hours. According to Wildstein, so did Bill Stepien (Christie’s then-gubernatorial re-election campaign manager) and Bill Baroni (the governor’s top appointee at the Port Authority, which runs the bridge).

Another courtroom bombshell exploded on October 21, 2016, when Bridget Anne Kelly — who had replaced Stepien as Christie’s deputy chief of staff — testified that on August 12, 2013, she’d told the governor about the contemplated lane closings a month before they occurred.

Someone is lying. Donald Trump cast his vote: the culprit is Christie, the person who now heads his presidential transition team.

The Investigation

I’ve written previously about the independent investigation that was supposed to put all of this to rest almost three years ago. In January 2014, Christie – a former federal prosecutor with eyes on a 2016 presidential bid – tried to contain the growing scandal by appointing a respected attorney to investigate. He chose Randy Mastro, another former prosecutor, who had served as Mayor Rudy Giuliani’s deputy from 1993 to 1998 before returning to the New York office of Gibson, Dunn & Crutcher.

Mastro’s team included Debra Wong Yang, who had served as U.S. attorney for the central district of California. At a June 2011 event, she introduced Christie as her “very good friend” whom she had “known for ten years” – going back to their time together as federal prosecutors. Yang said he was “the real deal” and “doing a remarkable job as governor.” When Christie took the stage, he recalled how their families vacationed together at the game ranch of a fellow U.S. attorney in Texas.

“We are good and dear friends,” Christie said.

Only two months after the 2014 Gibson Dunn investigation began, Mastro released his final report. It identified Wildstein and Kelly as the Bridgegate villains, both of whom — along with Baroni and Stepien — had refused to speak with investigators.

The Moment

The report discussed briefly a key moment: the conversation that Wildstein said he’d had with Christie and Bill Baroni at a 9/11 memorial service in New York City – two days into the four-day lane closures. According to his attorney, Wildstein told Christie about the lane closures and resulting traffic problems in Fort Lee. Christie said he couldn’t recall any such conversation. The report dismissed Wildstein’s account as not credible.

The investigation was expensive, but not for Christie. Through August 2015, Gibson Dunn billed New Jersey taxpayers $8 million for its work. According to the Times, in December 2015, Debra Wong Yang, “co-hosted a $2,700-per-person fund-raiser in Los Angeles for Christie’s Republican presidential campaign.”

Days of Reckoning

Fast-forward to September 23, 2016, when prosecutors called Wildstein to the witness stand. Using photos showing Christie, Baroni, and Wildstein speaking together at the 9/11 event, Wildstein testified to their conversation. He said that Baroni began by telling the governor in a sardonic tone that “there was a tremendous amount of traffic in Fort Lee” and that Christie would be “very pleased to know” that the Democratic mayor of the city was “very frustrated.” According to Wildstein, Christie laughed at the news. Upon learning that Fort Lee’s mayor was placing urgent phone calls about the situation, Christie said sarcastically, “I imagine he wouldn’t get his calls returned.”

Christie responded immediately to Wildstein’s courtroom testimony.

“All kinds of stuff is going on up in a courtroom in Newark,” he said on September 27, 2016. “I have not and will not say anything different than I’ve been saying since January 2014. No matter what is said up there, I had no knowledge prior to or during these lane realignments.”

Subsequently, Bill Baroni took the stand and offered his version of the 9/11 memorial service conversation with Christie. He said that the photo of the three men laughing might have captured their joking about Governor Andrew Cuomo arriving at the event on a motorcycle with singer Billy Joel.

But then Bridget Anne Kelly testified to having informed Christie about the planned lane closings a month before they occurred in 2013. And she added a kicker: She said that the governor stopped by her office after the 9/11 event, and they discussed the ongoing Fort Lee traffic complaints. She swore that Christie told her that the Port Authority and Wildstein were handling the situation.

The Lesson

The judge instructed the Bridgegate jury that Chistie was among those about whom the jury had heard but would render no decision. Its verdicts can’t resolve the question of whether Christie has been telling the truth about what he knew and when he knew it.

But that open issue is less important than how all of this relates to Donald Trump. He believes Christie is lying. Yet Christie still chairs the Trump presidential transition team. And he could become Trump’s leading candidate for attorney general.

One more twist in the tale: On January 9, 2014, Christie announced that Bill Stepien’s conduct relating to Bridgegate had caused him to “lose confidence in Bill’s judgment,” so he fired him as gubernatorial re-election campaign manager. On August 26, 2016, NBC News reported that the Trump campaign hired Stepien as its national field director.

“I hire only the best people,” Trump says.

PRESIDENT TRUMP’S ATTORNEY GENERAL? — PART 1

Last week, I discussed Trump’s threats to sue his critics and the possibility that, when it came actually to filing a lawsuit, his lawyers’ overriding duties of professional responsibility became a restraining influence. Even so, the threats themselves — like those Trump reiterated on October 22 to sue any and all accusers who have or will come forward to confirm his boasts about being a sexual predator — have a chilling impact. If an accuser with a truthful story remains quiet, Trump wins without firing a shot or paying a filing fee.

Anyone who doubts the effect of even an idle Trump threat should consider the American Bar Association’s recent actions. The New York Times reports:

“Alarmed by Donald J. Trump’s record of filing lawsuits to punish and silence his critics, a committee of media lawyers at the American Bar Association commissioned a report on Mr. Trump’s litigation history. The report concluded that Mr. Trump was a ‘libel bully’ who had filed many meritless suits attacking his opponents and had never won in court. But the bar association refused to publish the report, citing ‘the risk of the A.B.A. being sued by Mr. Trump.'”

The Media Law Research Center posted the report.

If candidate Trump can achieve that type of chilling effect on the nation’s largest professional association of attorneys, imagine the impact of a President Trump who would select the country’s top law enforcement officer, namely, the attorney general of the United States.

Even Worse Threats

“You’d be in jail.”

Donald Trump interrupted Hillary Clinton to deliver that warning during their second debate. Moments earlier, he’d provided the context.

“If I win,” he said, “I am going to instruct my attorney general to get a special prosecutor to look into your situation, because there has never been so many lies, so much deception. There has never been anything like it, and we’re going to have a special prosecutor.”

As Trump landed another blow against the rule of law, his supporters in the audience howled, “Lock her up” — a standard chant at Trump rallies.

The Gambit

The process for appointing a special counsel doesn’t give any president the power Trump says he’d wield. The last president to have any influence over a special prosecutor was Richard Nixon. Esteemed Harvard Law Professor Archibald Cox had the job, and it didn’t end well for Nixon or the country.

When Cox subpoenaed the president’s Oval Office tape recordings, Nixon ordered Attorney General Elliot Richardson to fire him. Richardson refused, so Nixon fired Richardson. When his successor, Deputy Attorney General William Ruckelshaus, likewise refused to discharge Cox, Nixon fired him, too. After Solicitor General Robert Bork was sworn in to replace Ruckelshaus, he executed Nixon’s command.

Eventually, the U.S. Supreme Court ordered Nixon to release the tapes. Nixon’s own voice proved his personal involvement in efforts to cover-up the 1972 burglary of Democratic National Committee headquarters – the Watergate break-in. The incriminating evidence led the House of Representatives to issue articles of impeachment. When it became clear that fellow Republicans in the Senate would provide enough votes to convict him, Nixon became the first U.S. president to resign his office.

The “Saturday Night Massacre” that cost Richardson, Ruckelshaus, and Cox their jobs led Congress to enact the Ethics in Government Act of 1978 that removed the president from the independent prosecutor process. In 1999, the legislation lapsed under a sunset provision. Today, the Code of Federal Regulations – which has the force of law – governs. The decision to appoint a “special counsel” to conduct investigations or prosecutions of particular matters on behalf of the United States belongs to the attorney general, not the president.

The Executioner

Nixon’s appointees, Richardson and Ruckelshaus, lost their jobs because they refused to do Nixon’s bidding. Trump’s attorney general would have to embrace his illegal post-election assault on a political adversary. To fulfill his banana republic-like promise to imprison a political opponent, Trump would need someone who bowed unquestioningly to his wishes.

Who might use the power of high office for such retribution? There’s an obvious candidate: New Jersey Governor Chris Christie. After all, at the Republican National Convention, he prosecuted the case against Hillary Clinton and invited the audience to roar, “Guilty.”

As for a willingness to use political power for payback, Trump has a favorable view of Christie, too.

“He knew about it,” Trump said during a Republican presidential primary rally in December 2015. “He totally knew about it.”

During a December 2013 news conference, Christie had staked out a different position: “I didn’t know anything about it.”

The “he” was Christie. The “it” was Bridgegate.

The Scandal

On September 9, 2013 – the first day of the school year in Fort Lee, New Jersey – commuters to New York City found themselves in a traffic jam on the George Washington Bridge. Without advance notice to local officials, the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey reduced from three to one the number of lanes and tollbooths available to vehicles accessing the bridge from Fort Lee.

Even by New York standards, the resulting gridlock on the world’s busiest bridge was monumental. Some motorists were stranded for hours. Public health and safety became serious concerns. Was it just a coincidence that the Democratic mayor of Fort Lee had refused to endorse Christie for a second term as governor?

As the debacle developed, what did Governor Christie know and when did he know it? Senator Howard Baker had made a similar question famous during the Watergate hearings, and it still resonated.

The next installment in this series will take a deeper dive into the criminal trial that has inflicted significant collateral damage on Christie — the head of Donald Trump’s presidential transition team.