New Jersey Bridge Scandal Captures National Political Stage

Governor Chris Christie's office has fired back at a former ally who is believed to have ordered unnecessary lane closures on the George Washington Bridge as political retribution. That ally alleged on Friday that "evidence exists" Christie knew about lane closures. For an update, Steve Inskeep talks to Cokie Roberts, who is heard on Morning Edition most Mondays, and Robert Costa, national political reporter for The Washington Post.

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STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

One person attending last night's game in New Jersey may have been a little bit distracted, the governor of New Jersey, Chris Christie. Over the weekend his office was responding to suggestions that he knew more than he admits about a New Jersey scandal. Governor Christie fired or disowned officials who blocked traffic on a bridge last year as an alleged act of political revenge. Now a former official says, quote, evidence exists that Governor Christie new about the lane closings on that bridge as they happened, though the official did not describe the evidence that he says exist.

Let's talk this over with Cokie Roberts who joined us most Mondays. Hi, Cokie.

COKIE ROBERTS, BYLINE: Hi, Steve.

INSKEEP: And in our studio we have Robert Costa, now of The Washington Post. Welcome back to the program.

ROBERT COSTA: Good morning.

INSKEEP: OK. Cokie, you first. Just a new allegation here that evidence exists. We don't even know what it is. Where does this leave us?

ROBERTS: Well, the New Jersey Democrat who is heading the state legislative committee investigation said yesterday that he hasn't seen any evidence. So it leaves it very much up in the air. And as you said, the governor has gone on a full-scale attack against David Wildstein, the fired Port Authority official whose lawyer made these allegations.

Now, of course if Wildstein is so awful, there is a question of why Christie hired him in the first place. So it's very much still up in the air.

INSKEEP: Okay. So very much up in the air, but there's a reason that we're paying such close attention to this state story, what would be a state level story, and it's because Governor Christie is regarded as one of the possible frontrunners for the Republican nomination in 2016. It's years away, but let's go there. Let's talk about this.

ROBERTS: Absolutely. It's never too early to talk politics about somebody, and look, what we're seeing is Republicans still standing behind him. Yesterday, Rudy Giuliani, Paul Ryan, Bobby Jindal, the governor of Louisiana, all defended Chris Christie out on the airwaves, and he has been invited to speak at the Conservative Political Action Committee, which last year dissed him, and he will be there in early March and we'll see how the conservative wing of the party, which of course is a very big wing, responds to him.

You know, I have never thought that Chris Christie is somebody that the Republican Party, as it is constituted now, is likely to nominate anyway, and this certainly doesn't make it any easier for him. But it's quite a field.

INSKEEP: Robert Costa, what are Christie's supporters saying as he gets in trouble here?

COSTA: Christie's support comes from the establishment wing of the Republican Party, and this is the donor base for Mitt Romney from the last cycle, and they've really looked to him to be the establishment's frontrunner heading into 2016. Now, I think, they're becoming very uneasy. I touched base with some of them over the weekend who were attending the Super Bowl and they said that they're now looking at people like Jeb Bush, the former Florida governor, Paul Ryan, the Wisconsin congressman, Scott Walker, the governor of Wisconsin, as new establishment favorites as the field unfolds.

INSKEEP: Republicans felt that their field was weak in 2012, to say the least, with all due respect to Mitt Romney or anybody else. That's what they said. What are Republicans feeling about their potential candidates in 2016?

COSTA: There's no incumbent president and there's no real frontrunner. Christie may have been that, but he was never someone who had run before and someone who carries a national base. So now it's one of the most wide open fields we've seen in memory, and you have a lot of different conservatives, different Republicans, different members of Congress looking at the race, seeing a real opportunity.

ROBERTS: And that's very unusual for the Republican Party. Usually there is an anointed one and everyone falls in line. Now, in 2012 people weren't willing to fall in line and a lot of candidates emerged. And what's concerning, what we call the establishment, it's mainly funders and party officials, is that a lot of those same people who ran in 2012 who they thought were not really cut out for the job are likely to be running again. And so...

INSKEEP: Robert?

COSTA: Cokie's exactly right. I mean I just spoke to Donald Trump, who talked about running last time.

ROBERTS: There you go.

COSTA: And Donald Trump told me for The Washington Post on Sunday that he's very seriously looking at the race. So that's the kind of field, a very wide, very colorful field that we're looking at.

INSKEEP: Robert, I'll give you the last word. We've just got a few seconds here. But is this party's future, the Republican Party's future, actually being decided now? There's debate over an immigration bill, there's a 2014 election on the way.

COSTA: It is, and you see House Speaker John Boehner try to push his party toward the center on immigration, but it's a tough battle for the party's establishment that want to get immigration reform done, but conservatives remain resistant on that issue and on many others.

ROBERTS: It was instructive yesterday that Eric Cantor, John Boehner's number two in the House, refused to answer a question about exactly what the party would do about legalization, and that's going to be the hang-up.

INSKEEP: Okay. Cokie Roberts, thanks very much.

ROBERTS: Thank you, Steve. Thank you, Bob.

INSKEEP: And Robert Costa of The Washington Post. Thanks for coming in this morning.

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