Very few Republican operatives knew the Nixon gang as intimately as Roger Stone, the legendary trickster whose back is adorned with an enormous Tricky Dick tattoo. And very few know New Jersey politics as well as Stone, who toiled among the party faithful in many campaigns since 1980, when he first ran the Garden State for Ronald Reagan.
So when he declares that Bridgegate is Watergate — from the stupidity of the original crime to the peril of the ongoing cover-up — attention must be paid. Especially on the day when the U.S. Attorney's Office investigating the Port Authority's decision to close three lanes of traffic on the world's busiest bridge issues subpoenas to the governor and the New Jersey Republican Party.
Speaking with The National Memo on Thursday afternoon, Stone said: "This is about hubris, this is about an arrogance and right out of the dark side of Nixon's playbook. It's what ultimately brought Nixon down. There was no reason to break into the Watergate, there was no reason to spy on your enemies. His foreign policy was popular, the economy was good and he was getting re-elected. Just like there was no reason to close these lanes on the George Washington Bridge — although just like with the break-in of Watergate, we still don't really know why they did that."
He doesn't buy the theory that Gov. Chris Christie's aides were punishing the mayor of Fort Lee for refusing to endorse the Republican governor — and thinks it more likely they were trying to harm state Sen. Loretta Weinberg, a determined Christie antagonist whose district includes Fort Lee.
To Stone, the governor's explanations rang false from the beginning — and reminded him of the verbal traps Nixon set for himself. He simply doesn't believe that Bridget Anne Kelly, the deputy chief of staff fired by Christie for "lying" to him, took the initiative to close the bridge lanes.
"The mentality that existed around Nixon — that Teutonic, buttoned-down, we-give-you-orders-you-carry-them-out — that mentality exists inside this administration ... It just doesn't seem plausible to me that this Kelly woman, who seems perfectly pleasant, stepped up to her computer and said, 'Time for traffic problems in Fort Lee.' Someone told her to do that." Stone says the dubious effort to blame her and a few others is the telltale sign of "a cover-up."
Stone doesn't personally know Kelly, but he has known David Wildstein, the Port Authority official who resigned after his role in the bridge closings was revealed, for 35 years. "He's the G. Gordon Liddy of this tale," he said, referring to the maniacal Watergate conspirator who secretly concocted plots to firebomb and even murder Nixon's political adversaries. "He's the 100 percent soldier, the kamikaze. This guy has thrown so many bombs I'm surprised he's got hands left."
When the Wall Street Journal recently published a photo of Christie with Wildstein taken last Sept. 11 — at the height of the lane-closing crisis — Stone was reminded of a classic Watergate question. The photo surfaced after Christie had claimed during his two-hour Bridgegate press conference that he didn't know Wildstein well and hadn't spoken with him for "a long time."
"We're asked to believe that they never discussed it," Stone noted with undisguised sarcasm. "What this becomes is, 'What did the governor know and when did he know it?' That's why I argue that (the scandal is) now a tar baby. First of all, there are now so many people with knowledge of what actually happened; some of them will be facing fines or prison and certainly public humiliation; and how do we know that none of them is going to implicate the governor, either through evidence or testimony? We don't. And because of the governor being very precise about what he knew and when he knew it, anything that proves a contradiction means this guy is history."
In an essay published on Wednesday by Daily Caller -- a right-wing website edited by Tucker Carlson where the dapper Stone serves as "fashion editor" -- he laid out a series of comparisons between the scandals, casting various characters around Christie as members of Nixon's Watergate crew:
"Port Authority chairman and former Attorney General David Samson is a gentleman of caution, sober judgment and integrity. His role is unclear. Like Attorney General John Mitchell with Nixon, Samson has been a calming influence on Christie and his henchmen, one of the few "gray hairs" Christie listens to. Port Authority official and ex-state Sen. Bill Baroni reminds me of (Nixon deputy campaign manager) Jeb Magruder: handsome, articulate, but ineffective. (Christie press secretary Michael) Drewniak plays the role of Nixon flack Ron Ziegler. GOP Chairman Bill Stepien is the scheming (Nixon White House counsel) Chuck Colson. Before it's over we will hear from all of them.
"Just as Nixon fired his top aides H.R. Haldeman and John Ehrlichman while insisting he knew nothing of the Watergate break-in or cover-up, Christie fired hatchet man David Wildstein and aide Kelley, laying the blame on them. While Wildstein (whom I have known since 1979, when he was Harold Stassen's presidential campaign manager) initially pled the Fifth Amendment, he is now prepared, according to his lawyer, to testify fully in return for full immunity. Is Wildstein the Liddy of this drama ... or is he John Dean? Then again maybe Kelley will beat Wildstein to the prosecutors. Maybe she's John Dean."
Stone enthusiastically supported Christie for governor in 2009 over Democratic incumbent Jon Corzine, but never saw him as a potential presidential contender. And while he preferred Christie to Corzine — "a crook" — Stone harbors no illusions about the governor's swift rise to political prominence. "He was elevated to the U.S. Attorney's Office after his multimillionaire brother (Todd Christie) gave a very, very substantial donation to the Republican National Committee."
Now, he insists, the handicaps that Christie would face as a presidential hopeful are insurmountable. "Christie was the contender of the establishment party (wing). This is where (billionaire GOP financier) Ken Langone is, this is where the Texas money is ... the Rudy (Giuliani) wing. In many ways, Christie is Rudy without the charm," he quipped.
But he also believes that Christie's powerful backers are still oblivious to the looming disaster. "They're going to spend a lot of money finding out that he can't be saved." He warns of a fundamental problem: "You can't run a presidential campaign — and you can't start one — on defense. 'Chris Christie was campaigning in New Hampshire today when an email bomb dropped in Trenton that showed ... BA BOOM.' At the precise time when he needs to be getting a campaign together, he's on defense."
A Miami resident, Stone closely observed the New Jersey governor's recent trip to south Florida for the Republican Governors Association, which Christie now chairs — and was not impressed.
"You saw in Florida a perfect example of what this would be like if Christie runs for president. He comes down here, he does three private fundraisers — and the addresses aren't even disclosed to the media because they don't even want them outside. There's no press event with the two governors, and he slips in and out of the state, like a thief in the night. And (Florida Gov.) Rick Scott doesn't even want to be seen with him, which tells a lot."
Speaking of Florida, Stone is perhaps most notorious for his starring role in the "Brooks Brothers riot" during the 2000 presidential recount at the Miami-Dade election office. But after more than 40 years in the GOP, dating back to his chairmanship of the Young Republicans in 1979, he has walked away from his old comrades to join the Libertarian Party.
Still, having worked in no fewer than eight Republican presidential campaigns, he admits, "I still have my emotional Republican leanings." He has very little regard for Rand Paul ("a guy who looks like he slept in his suit") or Ted Cruz ("doing his best impression of Joseph R. McCarthy") — which for him may make the current parody of America's most infamous political scandal a very painful form of entertainment.