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THE SITUATION ROOM
Christie Scandal; New NSA Spying Revelation
Aired January 16, 2014 - 18:00 ET
THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.
WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR: But his office has just hired an outside lawyer. Can Christie still conduct business and politics as usual?
Did a Christie aide go rogue? New details on the political appointee who personally directed the lane closures which brought a city to its knees.
And a new bombshell revelation about NSA snooping just as President Obama gets ready to announce major reforms to the agency's surveillance programs.
I'm Wolf Blitzer, and you're in THE SITUATION ROOM.
First, 20 subpoenas have just gone out to the -- in the New Jersey traffic scandal. And Chris Christie is digging in for the long haul, expecting marathon investigations into the gridlock orchestrated by aides. Facing a veteran prosecutor, Christie's office has now hired a law firm of its own, but the governor was at the scene of his greatest success today, vowing to carry on.
We have full coverage, beginning with our chief congressional correspondent, Dana Bash. She has the very latest -- Dana.
DANA BASH, CNN SENIOR CONGRESSIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, a source close to Christie told me that earlier this week he called a meeting of his top aides and he told them there are big lessons for all of them to learn in how to manage the office and their people.
He also told his staff he understands a lot of their time and energy will be consumed with the multiple investigations going on, but they have got to get back to work. That's what he tried to do today.
BASH (voice-over): It's this kind of image that made Chris Christie's popularity soar, comforting and helping victims of Hurricane Sandy. Today's trip to the Jersey Shore was all about recapturing that.
GOV. CHRIS CHRISTIE (R), NEW JERSEY: There's all kinds of challenges, as you know, that come every day out of nowhere to test you.
BASH: Back in Trenton, the governor's office hired an outside law firm to help with an internal review of the bridge closing fiasco. CNN is told Christie has not hired his own personal lawyer.
CHRISTIE: I'm as focused on completing this mission as I was when I woke up on the morning of October 30, 2012. And nothing will distract me from getting that job done. Nothing.
BASH: That won't be easy. Soon after, Democrats in New Jersey's Senate unanimously authorized a special committee to investigate George Washington Bridge lane closures in September. And the man who put Illinois Governor Rod Blagojevich in jail, Reid Schar, was named special prosecutor for another investigation by the state assembly.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Thank you.
BASH: That committee issued its first subpoena, 20 of them in warp speed, all of this as Christie pledged to stay focused on New Jersey constituents.
CHRISTIE: You all gave me a resounding vote of support on November 5.
BASH: But national politics will dominate his schedule this weekend, fund-raisers in Florida for the governor and the Republican Governors Association, which he chairs, and events with potential future donors hosted by billionaire Home Depot co-founder Ken Langone.
CNN is told Christie's troubles have not driven away donors he would need to run for president. In fact, more signed up to see him since the scandal exploded.
BASH: As for Democrats, they clearly still see Christie as a formidable force in the future, so much so that the Democratic National Committee chairwoman, Debbie Wasserman Schultz, Wolf, she plans to hold events in Florida responding to Chris Christie, except those events are all private.
BLITZER: Yes, she's in Florida, too. She's from South Florida.
BASH: She is, but she will go all over the state for this.
BLITZER: I'm sure she is. Thanks very much, Dana, for that report.
Chris Christie's administration facing multiple investigations a the state and federal levels. A state assembly panel has just issued the first subpoenas. Democrat Loretta Weinberg is the majority leader of the New Jersey Senate and heads its committee looking into the traffic scandal. She is joining us now for more.
What are the major unanswered questions you're looking at right now?
LORETTA WEINBERG (D), NEW JERSEY STATE SENATOR: Well, the major unanswered question is the question. Who actually ordered this and why? You know, let's focus on the fact of what happened here. The busiest bridge in the world was put on -- was the cause of a tremendous traffic jam that put thousands of people in jeopardy, that caused schoolchildren to be late on the first day of school. That was the week of the 9/11 memorial.
All of that was done, and we have not yet heard an answer as to who really ordered it. We know that there was an e-mail directly from the governor's office to David Wildstein at the Port Authority that signified move ahead with the traffic jam.
BLITZER: So you don't know yet, Senator, why this decision was made to shut down those lanes?
WEINBERG: That is the biggest unanswered question, Wolf.
BLITZER: What do you suspect?
WEINBERG: You know, there are so many theories out there, so many theories, and maybe all of them are plausible and maybe they all came into play in this. I'm not ready to speculate on that. That's why we have the Senate committee with subpoena power.
But let me point out that I had been going to Port Authority meetings in October, November, December. I contacted one of our Port Authority commissioners, Pat Schuber, with copies to David Samson, the chairperson of the Port Authority, and to the governor himself, back in September when this happened asking for an explanation.
I am absolutely outraged that I learn today that that Port Authority, whom I have appeared before for four months now, sat there silently, never answered, that today finally they answered Senator Rockefeller and said, there was no evidence of a traffic study. They sat there for four months. Every single New Jersey commissioner, I would say, is in dereliction of their responsibility to the people we all represent in New Jersey, particularly the people I represent in my area, including Fort Lee and Englewood and Leonia and Teaneck, and all the surrounding towns, Palisades Park, that suffered through those traffic jams.
This is horrendous.
BLITZER: Who created that false report, that suggestion that there was some sort of traffic study under way?
WEINBERG: That was done by the deputy executive director of the Port Authority, Mr. Bill Baroni.
BLITZER: And he resigned.
WEINBERG: He resigned, but he resigned after he went on November 25 to the Assembly Transportation Committee, not under subpoena, nor under oath, went voluntarily and claimed that there was a traffic study and that this was an issue of fairness because somehow there were some kind of private roads from Fort Lee to the George Washington Bridge, absolutely a made-up cover-up. And I have been saying it since then.
So the fact that I have appeared before the Port Authority -- these are men who are supposedly responsible for the biggest infrastructures in our region, for the safety, for the new building, for transportation projects, for hundreds of thousands of people and for hundreds of millions of dollars. And they sat there for four months silently.
BLITZER: We know the state Assembly has issued these 20 subpoenas. I assume you're going to start issuing your own subpoenas. To the same people or different people?
WEINBERG: Hopefully, we will work in conjunction with one another, but we are going to start off by issuing subpoenas for documents from Chairman David Samson's office, from Commissioner Pat Schuber's office, who I had a personal interchange with, who promised me back in September he'd get to the bottom of this, and from the governor's incoming chief of staff, Regina Egea, who is also C.C.ed on some of these e-mails.
BLITZER: What kind of timeline do you expect for this investigation?
WEINBERG: Well, you know, I'm not so sure that it's going to happen that quickly.
But I would like to see us expedite it as quickly as we can, to get to the real answers. If the governor really wants to get to the bottom of this, he will urge all of the people that are surrounding him to come and tell the truth and not redact various items from e- mails and to come clean.
I C.C.ed the governor on my original letter of inquiry on this of what happened here. That's back in September. I have yet to receive an answer from the governor. Now, maybe I'm on that list that has become so infamous of all the people the governor doesn't answer. But I wrote the letter on Senate stationery. I'm the majority leader of the New Jersey State Senate and I have yet to receive an answer from any of these people.
BLITZER: I just want to wrap it up, Senator.
BLITZER: Is there any evidence at all, anything you have seen, that directly links the governor, the governor, per se, the governor personally, that there is something that would suggest he has been lying over these past few days?
WEINBERG: No. There is not any kind of direct evidence like that, except that four people around the governor, two were fired, two were forced to resign under pressure. And I believe what the governor is most responsible for is creating an environment in his office and in fact in political circles in our state of an environment of this kind of behavior is acceptable. That's what I think the governor needs to answer for and I don't think he has done that yet.
BLITZER: Loretta Weinberg is the New Jersey state Senate majority leader.
Senator, thanks very much for joining us.
WEINBERG: Thank you, Wolf.
BLITZER: Still ahead, we have extraordinary new details on the Christie ally who personally directed the lane closures which threw that city of Fort Lee into gridlock. Was he acting on his own?
And New Jersey lawmakers have hired a prosecutor who once put a former governor in jail. So how tough is this showdown going to be?
BLITZER: We're learning some exclusive new details about the man at the center of the New Jersey traffic scandal, a Christie political ally who held a job created especially for him, personally orchestrated the lane closures that brought a city to its knees.
Did he have a direct connection to the governor or did he simply go rogue?
Let's turn to CNN's Chris Frates of CNN's investigations. He's been looking into this.
What are you finding out?
CHRIS FRATES, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, we're finding out that while Governor Christie has distanced himself from David Wildstein, we're learning some pretty interesting new details from sources inside the Port Authority.
FRATES (voice-over): "Time for some traffic problems in Fort Lee?" "Got it." With that two-word response, David Wildstein helped set off a scandal that threatens to derail New Jersey Governor Chris Christie's second term and maybe even his presidential ambitions.
And now CNN is learning new information about Wildstein, the man who occupied a key post at the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey and is at the center of the Bridgegate scandal. He refused to answer questions from state lawmakers last week.
DAVID WILDSTEIN, FORMER DIRECTOR OF INTERSTATE CAPITAL PROJECTS, PORT AUTHORITY: I assert my right to remain silent.
BASH: Wildstein's position, director of interstate capital projects, was created just for him at the direction of the governor's office, according to a former employee familiar with Port Authority hires practices. Indeed, Wildstein's post didn't even exist before he filled it in 2010, according to Port Authority documents examined by CNN.
Before Christie became governor, there were only four positions in the top New Jersey office at Port Authority. Christie increased the number to six. Wildstein personally directed the lane closures on the George Washington Bridge in September, and that's thrust Christie into the center of multiple investigations over whether the closure was political retaliation.
The revelations come in new documents released today by the U.S. Senate Commerce Committee. They paint a picture of a man who went rogue, closing lanes without following proper procedures despite warnings of traffic backups and safety risks. Christie distanced himself from Wildstein after the story broke, especially after it was reported the two attended the same high school.
CHRISTIE: David and weren't friends in high school. We weren't even acquaintances in high school.
FRATES: High school acquaintances contacted by CNN backed up the story. In fact, Christie's high school baseball coach, Tony Hope, said the two couldn't have been more different.
TONY HOPE, COACH: No one could ever say a bad thing about Chris, everything extremely positive. All his friends, they loved him. He was popular as a person could be. And David was very quiet, also extremely intelligent, but didn't have great social skills.
BASH: But by the time Wildstein was hired at the Port Authority in 2010, he was being introduced to people as a good friend of Christie's, according to a source, though the governor says the two are not close.
CHRISTIE: I could probably count on one hand the number of conversations I have had with David since he worked at the Port Authority.
BASH: Sources tell CNN Wildstein was viewed as Christie's eyes and ears, scrutinizing agency business on the governor's behalf. They believed he spoke for the governor and, in turn, watched what they said about him, assuming their words would end up back in governor's ear, though the governor's office says this is inaccurate and has been "mischaracterized by the media."
Christie's office also provided us with this response. "As the governor made clear last week, David Wildstein is not a childhood friend and his interactions with him over the last four years have been limited. Last month, he appointed a new leader at the Port Authority with a proven record of rooting out corruption and reforming government agencies to help lead the agency."
(END VIDEOTAPE) FRATES: Now, when Chris Christie came into office, the governor said the Port Authority was on the list of agencies that needed to be reformed. Wolf, it's kind of ironic that the governor targeted this Port Authority for improvement and now it's come back to bite him a little bit.
BLITZER: Yes, certainly has. All right, Chris, thanks very much, Chris Frates reporting.
Let's dig a little bit deeper right now. Investigators are moving quickly to try to get to the bottom of this entire scandal with the first of 20 subpoenas already going out.
Let's bring in our senior legal analyst, Jeffrey Toobin.
What do you make of this decision, very quick decision to issue these 20 subpoenas, 17 involving individuals, three involving organizations?
JEFFREY TOOBIN, CNN SENIOR LEGAL ANALYST: One reason you act so quickly when you're a prosecutor is that it puts all of the recipients of the subpoenas on notice that, if you do anything to the documents that are subpoenaed, that's a crime. That's obstruction of justice.
So as soon as you have that subpoena in your hand, you know that you better not destroy those e-mails, you better not destroy the documents or you might be in some extremely serious trouble. It will probably take a while for all those documents, all those records to be produced, but it's certainly an aggressive first step on the part of the special counsel.
BLITZER: What do you know about Reid Schar? He's the special prosecutor. He was clearly involved in Rod Blagojevich now spending 14 years in jail. What do you know about this prosecutor that's now been brought into this investigation?
TOOBIN: Well, he's a very respected prosecutor from Chicago, the U.S. Attorney's Office for the Northern District of Illinois. His boss was Patrick Fitzgerald, whom I'm sure a lot of people remember, a very well-regarded prosecutor there.
And I think what's most significant about him is that he's not from New Jersey. He's not even from the East Coast. He comes from an entirely different political culture, legal culture, so he doesn't owe anybody anything. And he will come to this with open eyes and no loyalties and, you know, let the chips fall where they may is I'm sure the idea behind his appointment.
BLITZER: And we know the governor today named his own lawyer, an individual named Randy Mastro, who was pretty close to Rudy Giuliani, the former mayor of New York City.
TOOBIN: And a very well-regarded white-collar crime lawyer in New York, someone who is also known, even though those standards, as very, very tough. There's a famous law firm in Washington called Patton, Boggs and Blow, and Randy Mastro has been in a fight with that law firm over a matter in Ecuador that has driven Patton Boggs to incredibly internal problems.
It's very unusual that you can have one lawyer almost bring down a major law firm, but that's indicative of how tough Randy Mastro is. I think it's also a signal that the governor may say in his state of the state address, I'm going to cooperate. If you're lawyer is Randy Mastro, you're not going to be going out of your way to cooperate. Randy Mastro's job is to protect the governor, and he will do it like he does everything, very aggressively.
BLITZER: But there's going to be a conflict there. On the one hand, you will tell your client, if you're Randy Mastro, don't say anything. On the other hand, for political reasons, he's the governor of New Jersey, the chairman of the Republican Governors Association. He's got to talk.
TOOBIN: He's got to talk, but you can be sure that Governor Christie is going to be saying things like, as he's already said, I have already addressed those questions.
It's one thing to be available to questions about your duties as governor, but whether you interact about the details of this matter is another question. And I don't expect Randy Mastro will be allowing the governor to engage about this every day. He is going to keep this under a tight rein.
And look for conflict ahead because, you know, in the production of documents, who's cooperating, how much they're cooperating, that is where these matters often turn into conflict and you will see it here, I bet.
BLITZER: Everybody seems to be lawyering up right now, as they say.
Jeffrey, thanks very much.
Up next, stunning new revelations about NSA spying even as President Obama getting ready to announce new reforms for the surveillance programs.
On this, the anniversary of Desert Storm, a tribute to someone who helped put CNN on the map.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
BERNARD SHAW, CNN ANCHOR: The skies over Baghdad have been illuminated.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
BLITZER: New bombshell about the extent of NSA snooping. "The Guardian" newspaper, which has broken many of the leaks, reports the agency has now collected millions of text messages. All this comes just as President Obama getting ready to announce reforms to the NSA surveillance programs.
Let's bring in our chief national security correspondent, Jim Sciutto.
What do you make of this latest report in "The Guardian"?
JIM SCIUTTO, CNN CHIEF NATIONAL SECURITY CORRESPONDENT: Well, this based on yet more documents stolen by Edward Snowden, released by "The Guardian" newspaper, not coincidentally, I imagine, the day before the president makes his big speech, but another tool of the NSA that shows the extent of its ability to watch and listen, collecting 200 million texts a day, and also other information, location, contact details, credit card details.
"The Guardian" implied this was done indiscriminately. This NSA pushing back very hard on that issue, in this statement to "The Guardian," saying: "Any implication that the agency's collection was arbitrary and unconstrained is false." They say the agency's capabilities are directed only against "valid foreign intelligence targets," which is an argument that we have heard from them before in response to the revelation of other forms of mass collection.
BLITZER: The president tomorrow at 11:00 a.m. Eastern, he will go to the Justice Department and announce the reforms he's willing to accept.
SCIUTTO: That's right.
And I'm told the discussions, the debate on what those reforms are, are continuing up to the final minute.
SCIUTTO: Showing the sensitivity of the issues that have to be decided.
I think what happens tomorrow, whether you're satisfied or not, is going to depend on what your expectations are. If you're expected bulk collection to end, it's not going to happen. Even his intelligence reform panel did not recommend that. They said even though this kind of collection has not prevented an attack up to now, it may in the future. It's an essential tool. And they say kind of like we say about terrorists, terrorists only have to be successful once.
A program like this only has to be successful once to be important and it seems the president has indicated that he has found it is at least a valuable weapon in the arsenal in fighting terrorism. But there will be changes. Some of them already coming into play. One is that you need White House approval, you need senior approval to be monitoring the discussions, the communications of the leaders of allied countries. You know what pushback, what anger there was when it was discovered that the NSA was spying on the leaders of some of our closest countries. Also, a public advocate going on in this Foreign Surveillance Court. You will see changes like that, but you are not going to see the end of these programs.
BLITZER: We will see what he says about listening in on the conversations of world leaders of friendly countries especially.
SCIUTTO: And they will be listening to what he's saying.
BLITZER: We will have live coverage 11:00 a.m. Eastern tomorrow morning. Jim Sciutto, thanks very much.
Finally, we want to congratulate a CNN veteran who is being honored tonight, my friend and former colleague Bernard Shaw. He's being inducted into the National Association of Black Journalists Hall of Fame. And it's happening on a very fitting day, one of the most important moments in Bernie's career and in the history of CNN.
It happened 23 years ago today. That would be the beginning of the first Iraq War, Operation Desert Storm.
BLITZER (voice-over): Bernie, along with reporters John Holliman and Peter Arnett, made television history from the ninth floor of Baghdad's Al-Rashid Hotel.
SHAW: The skies over Baghdad have been illuminated. We're seeing white flashes going off all over the sky.
PETER ARNETT, FORMER CNN CORRESPONDENT: He had the microphone first, the instinct to broadcast, to be there. He didn't waver. He didn't hesitate.
BLITZER: No one knew whether the boys in Baghdad would survive that night. A billion people watched around the world, and CNN, as we know it, was born.
BLITZER: What a day. I remember it very, very vividly.
Congratulations to Bernie Shaw from all of us here at CNN. When I joined 24 years ago, he was a huge, huge help to me.
Thanks very much for watching. I'm Wolf Blitzer in Washington.