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Virginia Ex-Governor Indicted; Christie's Political Future: Unlimited Or Road-Blocked?

Aired January 21, 2014 - 18:28   ET



ANNOUNCER: Tonight on CROSSFIRE, Chris Christie starts his second term under a cloud.

GOV. CHRIS CHRISTIE (R), NEW JERSEY: All of us may be one "yes" away from our miracle.

ANNOUNCER: Will it end in the White House or in trouble?

DONALD TRUMP, REAL-ESTATE MOGUL: He's one e-mail away from a disaster.

ANNOUNCER: On the left, Van Jones. On the right, Newt Gingrich. In the CROSSFIRE, Brad Woodhouse, a Democratic strategist; and Republican Ken Cuccinelli, Virginia's former attorney general. Chris Christie's political future: unlimited or road-blocked? Tonight on CROSSFIRE.


VAN JONES, CO-HOST: Welcome to CROSSFIRE. I'm Van Jones on the left.

NEWT GINGRICH, CO-HOST: I'm Newt Gingrich on the right. In the CROSSFIRE tonight, guests with different opinions of Chris Christie.

But first we have some breaking news about another, quote, "scandal" involving a Republican governor. Late today, the former Virginia governor, Bob McDonnell, and his wife were indicted on charges of illegally accepting gifts. McDonnell calls it a false indictment and, from my early read of the charges, this may end up being another example of overreach by President Obama's Justice Department.

This news broke shortly after Governor Chris Christie was sworn in for a second term. Despite the Democratic overreach there, in New Jersey, in an impressive speech, Christie rose above the bridge scandal, at least for today.

JONES: OK, Newt. Here we go. Look, you guys can try to posh this up. I think the Republican Party is in real trouble tonight. If you think about it, during the shutdown they say, "We might have some wacked (ph) old birds in the Congress, but we've got these great, strong governors." Now we've got the governors in trouble, too.

We've got to get to the bottom of this tonight. In the CROSSFIRE tonight, we've got Democratic strategist Brad Woodhouse. Glad to have you back. And Republican Ken Cuccinelli. He's Virginia's former attorney general. Let's go to you.

Now listen, you've worked very closely with Governor McDonnell. A lot of people said that his troubles really held you back in terms of your own race to be the governor. What's your reaction to these indictments tonight?

KEN CUCCINELLI, FORMER VIRGINIA ATTORNEY GENERAL: Well, certainly, they cause challenges for us all of us in Virginia. And we'd like to think of ourselves -- we were talking about Virginia and New Jersey tonight.

We like to think of ourselves as a pretty smooth-running, clean state. Doesn't mean everything goes the way we all want it to all the time. This puts a dent in that. And that's not something we're happy to see with the history we've got, which has been pretty darn good.

I agree with Newt's comments, especially when I see a first lady indicted. I'm going to want to see more of those details. The feds not sharing this stuff with us when they're pursuing it. I think this one is still going to be unfolding in terms of the political versus bad behavior comparison that -- that we're going to see...

JONES: You started your own investigation, though, as an attorney general, looking at some of these gifts. I mean, if you look at the list of these gifts, very long list of gifts. The allegations are the first lady was actually helping to facilitate the relationship.

I don't know. I mean, from my point of view, I am very curious how did this -- I mean, you were on your way to being governor. This kind of behavior took over headlines. How do you feel now, seeing this go this far?

CUCCINELLI: Well, I don't think any of us are really surprised to see an indictment come out, largely because this is leaked thoroughly since the summer. Leaks suggests almost unintentional. And I'm not sure that's the case. It's been bleeding out for more than six months.

JONES: Are you saying Obama...

CUCCINELLI: I don't think anybody's surprised.

JONES: Are you saying the Obama administration is running itself out there, trying to make this worse than it is?

CUCCINELLI: I don't think make it worse than it is. It is what it is. But certainly, to drag out the pain and the death by a thousand cuts. I think that's certainly...

GINGRICH: I think every American has to be worried about the power of the government if they decide to come after you. And in this case, the fact that they have indicted the first lady, which I'm not sure of other cases where the person is not an office holder, doesn't have the legal obligation...

CUCCINELLI: You mentioned the gifts investigation that I began. The person with the obligation with respect to gifts is the office holder.

JONES: Absolutely.

CUCCINELLI: I don't think that surprises anyone.

JONES: As a former prosecutor, you admit, though, if there is a conspiracy between the governor and the first lady to solicit these gifts, that's a bad thing. You think that's pretty bad, don't you?

CUCCINELLI: Of course, it's a bad thing.

BRAD WOODHOUSE, DEMOCRATIC STRATEGIST: I think if you saw Governor McDonnell's statement today, he didn't really challenge the charges. He said that his conduct wasn't illegal, but -- which raises some real issues about the law -- the law in Virginia if you're allowed, as a sitting officer, to go out and solicit these type of gifts and accept these -- accept these types of gifts.

I think the bigger problem here for the Republican Party is what Van eluded to. You know, it was a year ago that the RNC came out with a -- you know, a rebranding effort. They came out with a report, and they said that they were going to do more outreach and that they were -- you know, they were going to be more open to policy disagreements. Now there's nothing to indicate that that's happen.

But they also said we need to look at states for laboratories and Republican governors for leadership. The past two chairmen of the Republican Governors Association, one is under federal indictment and one, Chris Christie, is under federal investigation. So they might have to look elsewhere for leadership.

GINGRICH: Let's go -- let's go saying (ph) that, because I realize that, since Christie was the one candidate who was beating Hillary Clinton there is a particular eagerness among Democratic strategists.

Isn't it a fact that what you have right now is a very tiny problem compared to the normal problems of large governments? You have several of his people who were really stupid who did something for four days that's really indefensible. But it's pretty hard to imagine that Chris Christie is going to be caught up in having personally directed closing the bridge lanes to punish the mayor.


CUCCINELLI: Bringing together, same things.

WOODHOUSE: First of all, I don't think anyone that waited in that traffic or waited for an ambulance or a first responder thinks that that was a minor -- minor incident.

And look, I think it stretches credulity to think that, you know, the person that's your deputy chief of staff, that's across the hall from you, that toured the state with you the day these lane closures occurred just did this. But you know...

GINGRICH: Just want to put this in motion for a second. OK. And I'm not making light of the people. I saw somebody two days ago who was actually caught in the traffic. So I'm not making light of it.


GINGRICH: But as somebody who I assume would defend the administration, which had over 5 million Americans writing letters saying they were losing their insurance, it's a little hard to look at the scale of chaos of Obama care and then turn and say, "Now, this Chris Christie guy, you have to really worry about that bridge problem."

WOODHOUSE: Well, I mean, look, I think that the bridge -- you know, now he's trying to intimidate MSNBC and he's gotten his official office calling for -- calling for the ouster of the chair in the state senate who is running the investigation that he two weeks ago said he would cooperate with. So look, I think this goes further than the bridge. This is a political issue.

JONES: I agree with that.

WOODHOUSE: More Chris Christie.

JONES: It's not just us saying this. I think also the polls reflect it. I want to show you these numbers and get your reaction, Ken.

You're seeing an implosion here. You mentioned that Hillary Clinton was neck and neck with Christie. He's dropped down, like, about eight points now. Isn't this a big problem for him?

And from your point of view, now you're a political professional. And you're somebody who's been in this world a long time. When McDonnell got in this much trouble in the polls, he abandoned his presidential aspirations. Should Chris Christie now say, "Look, I've got a state to run. I've got to deal with home issues. I've got an investigation." Should he give up on his presidential aspirations and let people know he's got to be focused on the home field now?

CUCCINELLI: Every governor does better by setting everything else aside. If the goal is to be the best governor you can be, that's done better by setting everything else aside.

Let me finish it out. Let me finish it out. He can do that, I mean, really sincerely do it, and come back in a year and reassess whether he is in a position then to actually step in...

JONES: Would you advise him to do that?

CUCCINELLI: The best -- the best credential for being promoted is how did you do in the last job. And...

WOODHOUSE: He is struggling there right now.

CUCCINELLI: That's my point. He has to recover that before he's going to be in a position to move onto anything else.

And to Newt's point, let's face it: this is pretty petty. This is really petty. It's one of the things that I think people across the spectrum look at it and get upset about.

On the Republican side, we're sick of petty. And we like to blame it on the Democrats who are in charge of Washington right now. But that doesn't mean we want to...

WOODHOUSE: We're not in charge of all of them.

CUCCINELLI: That doesn't mean...

WOODHOUSE: Not in charge of the House of Representatives.

CUCCINELLI: That doesn't mean we want to import it in with the next president.

JONES: I can't let this in. Hold on a second. You're a former prosecutor. Are you going to tell me that if it's true -- now, you've got to have an investigation -- but if it's true that the government was -- that the governor of the state was allowing this sort of stuff to happen or attracting a staff that was doing this stuff that that's petty? What's your vision of government that says that kind of abuse is petty?

CUCCINELLI: No, no, no. The whole undertaking. Causing traffic because a Democrat doesn't endorse...


CUCCINELLI: That's what I'm talking about.

The president brings people with him. And if this is what you're going to bring. Christie, one of the things that we appreciate about him is he's blunt. I'm a blunt person. I like to see that.

But there's -- if that brashness rolls right down through your whole staff and they all think they can independently operate on it, you lose control. And I don't mean control in a bad way. I mean control in a good way.

JONES: Wouldn't that be -- wouldn't that be dangerous in the White House to have that kind of bluster with somebody in charge of the NSA, et cetera? Would you be concerned about that, Mr. Speaker?

WOODHOUSE: Of course he would be.

GINGRICH: That kind of bluster.

CUCCINELLI: You know, that kind of openness at NSA I'd be appreciative of.

GINGRICH: This is like -- this is like your earlier comment about MSNBC. Obama doesn't try to intimidate MSNBC because they adore him. They worship him.

WOODHOUSE: They adored -- the adored Chris Christie. I mean, part of this persona of Chris Christie was developed on "MORNING JOE."

CUCCINELLI: Right. Like they adored John McCain until he was actually the nominee.

WOODHOUSE: Let me say something -- let me say something to your point. We can agree or disagree about the severity of what -- of what took place. I think these charges, the Hoboken shake down, I think you could call it, these charges of the mayor of Hoboken are even worse for Chris Christie if proved to be true. But let's set aside how severe any of these allegations are.

It's clear this polling and the reaction to Governor Scott in Florida this weekend, it's clear this is having an impact on Christie politically.

Imagine this. Rick Scott in the past three years, at some point was the least popular governor in all of the United States of America. He wouldn't be seen or photographed with Chris Christie in Florida this week. That, I think, tells you that there's some real political damage here for Governor Christie.

JONES: I agree with you on that. I think there's more damage for the Republicans. In fact, I think Republicans trying to have it both ways on a whole bunch of issues, which we're going to talk about next.

WOODHOUSE: Probably the first time.

JONES: Probably the first time. But next I'm going to ask you, Ken, what is the difference, honestly, between Governor Christie and President Obama? When we get back.


JONES: Welcome back. In the CROSSFIRE tonight, we've got Brad Woodhouse and Ken Cuccinelli.

Today Chris Christie got a 2-1/2-minute standing ovation at his inauguration. I sure hope Republicans plan to cheer that long for President Obama at next week's State of the Union.

Now remember: Republicans used to attack the president for not knowing everything that was going on, from the IRS to his Web site team. They'd always go, "He's either a liar or he's incompetent."

Now, mind you, Obama has to oversee 2 million employees.

Now, somehow these same Republicans are giving wild applause to Chris Christie who claims he didn't know what two of his top aides were doing in the next office over.

So, is Christie a liar, or just incompetent? Or maybe the reckless attacks on the president are the real partisan overreach Republicans now claim to hate?

Now, to you, don't you think Republicans look hypocritical and don't you think that Republicans now, the people you lead, Republicans, should hold Chris Christie to the same standard they hold Obama to?

CUCCINELLI: Well, first of all, I think everybody ought to be held to the same standard. Your lead in was totally unconnected, one from the other. Each of the people is judged on their own terms and their own position, and that means they can both get negative marks or they can both get positive marks, but there's --


JONES: But shouldn't be a single standard?

CUCCINELLI: Sure, there should.

JONES: OK. But how can you say when it comes to Obama who has to deal with 2 million employees anything he doesn't know he is a liar or incompetent. You've got Chris Christie who can't keep his own aides in the barn, but he's not a liar. He's no competent. And it's just a witch hunt.

CUCCINELLI: And he is paying a price for it.

JONES: Well, you think he should or he shouldn't?

CUCCINELLI: I don't hear the pushback that you are describing. You are equating the two and they are not equivalent at all.


WOODHOUSE: I want to agree with you.


I mean, look at the IRS. Other people suffer for that. Other people suffer for that.

That's --

JONES: Sandy relief victims don't suffer, the people in the cars don't suffer?

CUCCINELLI: The New Jersey -- no, no, they are very specific. So, you've got these two sort of batches of people who have been victims of one sort of pettiness or another. There is a reason we say don't make a federal case out of it because everything is a whole lot bigger out there, an awful lot more people have been targeted by the president than the traffic.

WOODHOUSE: Let me see if I can find a point of agreement. I agree there has been untold number of Republicans that have gone out, Giuliani did it this weekend, to say the president and the IRS. Well, there has never been an e-mail found from David Axelrod or David Plouffe, or Jim Messina, or Valerie Jarrett, or Bill Daley, or Rahm Emanuel, to suggest that the IRS should investigate more Republican political groups than Democratic political groups. There was an email from the deputy chief of staff that said, it's time for some problems -- traffic problems in Fort Lee.

So, I think that distinguishes these two quite a bit.

GINGRICH: But go down the whole list.

I mean, the total fiasco of the Web site after hundreds of millions of dollars leaving people in some states even today --

WOODHOUSE: But that was incompetence. That was incompetence.

GINGRICH: So, it's incompetence. So, who has been fired?

CUCCINELLI: Yes, but it's more than incompetence. They were saying, days before, oh, it's ready to roll. And they knew it wasn't ready to roll.

WOODHOUSE: Well, I think that's --

CUCCINELLI: That's lying. It was different from incompetence.

WOODHOUSE: Well, there were few people who were to be held accountable. There was no one person saying we can't go, that it is not going to work.

It was -- it was incompetence. This was political retribution. The e-mails say it was political retribution.

CUCCINELLI: You're absolutely right. So?

GINGRICH: By the way, they were fired. This was so amazing. I mean, he stepped in and fired them.

Let's say the people who advised the president to lie to the American people about Obamacare, have they been fired?

JONES: There is no evidence --

WOODHOUSE: There are a lot of people, Newt, who have retired, you know?


WOODHOUSE: So, coincidentally, a lot of people are retired.

Well, the contractor was fired over the holidays --


JONES: You're doing -- you're doing a great job of defending Chris Christie tonight and I wish I could say there were a lot more people. You know who you remind me of, my friend Donald Trump.

I want you to hear what Donald Trump had to say. I hear that is good company.


JONES: OK, fair enough. I want you to hear --

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP) DONALD TRUMP, TRUMP ORGANIZATION: He is a friend of mine. He is a good guy. He's one e-mail away from a disaster.


JONES: Now, listen --

CUCCINELLI: With friends like that, you mean one more e-mail.

JONES: Exactly, one more email from another disaster.

Now, let's get back to reality here. You ran for governor. You know the importance of the Republican Governors Association. Chris Christie is now in charge of that.

Do you think it is fair for him to stay in that role, that key role for your party while he is going through all of this and one the best help he is getting is on CROSSFIRE and from Donald Trump.

CUCCINELLI: I think just from the perspective of setting aside this as an issue in other races, it makes sense for him to step aside in that role. He does not serve the goals of that organization by staying as chairman.

GINGRICH: Let me ask you --

JONES: Well, I --

CUCCINELLI: That doesn't mean any of the charges, political or otherwise, are substantive or not, it doesn't matter. Perception is reality. And that put the whole organization --


JONES: People have said about Chris Christie this whole time, it's all about Chris Christie. It's a party of one.

Why would a Chris Christie who cares about Republicans, who cares about people like yourself who are running for office, why wouldn't he step down? Why do you think he's not stepping down?

CUCCINELLI: Well, frankly I think this is still relatively new. He may well step down. I have no idea what his thinking is on that. And he may -- he may get some counsel from other governors along those lines.

GINGRICH: But let me ask you something about this. Given the imperial nomination of secretary senator, First Lady Clinton, this seems to be the offing. This is, after all, a family which in its first presidential cycle went through a whole series of scandals. I mean, it was unbelievable.

Starting in the summer of '92 when "The New York Times" unearthed the whole Whitewater issue.

JONES: Thoroughly debunked. GINGRICH: You got the cattle futures.

JONES: Debunked, debunked, debunked.

GINGRICH: Then you got --

CUCCINELLI: I'd love it if someone debunked me making $100,000.

GINGRICH: Here's my only point -- all of these kept coming along and they kept coming along, and the Clinton model was really simple. You just -- you're like a battleship. You go straight ahead, you ignore everything around you. You chant, we're doing the people's business. You hire lots of people like James Carville to go around and trash your opponents.

JONES: Well, look --

GINGRICH: Then, one morning you emerge. So, why would one take -- you know, why would one take the lesson of Hillary Clinton's entire career and say let's apply this different standard to Chris Christie?

WOODHOUSE: Well, I don't think -- I don't use different standard. I mean, look, he may survive this. Hell, in a Republican primary, he may benefit from this. He's now doing the classic Republican thing. He's attacking the media. I mean, he's attacking the Democrats.

CUCCINELLI: Oh, who does that?

WOODHOUSE: Because the Democrats close the lanes. It's certainly his conduct in how he conducts himself now is the real question about whether or not he'll survive. Now, you know, he did a press conference a couple weeks ago widely acclaimed to have been effective. He said he was going to cooperate.

What did he do two weeks later? He attacked the investigator in the senate. He attacked MSNBC. So, you know, we'll see.

GINGRICH: Things change.


GINGRICH: So, stay here.

Next, the final question for both of our guests.

We also want you at home to weigh in on today's "Fireback" question. How should Republican candidates feel about campaigning for Chris Christie? Tweet proud or embarrassed using #crossfire. We'll have the results after the break.


GINGRICH: We're back with Brad Woodhouse and Ken Cuccinelli. Now, it's time for the final question.

And I have to ask you this because you did a great job. What did you call the Hoboken thing earlier on?

WOODHOUSE: The Hoboken shakedown.

GINGRICH: The Hoboken shakedown, I like that.

WOODHOUSE: #hobokenshakedown.

GINGRICH: Look, there are 565 mayors in New Jersey. Now, apparently 564 of them don't share this mayor's concerns. And apparently up until two weeks ago, she didn't share her own concerns.

Now, I really have to ask this. The other thing that came out in the last few days was a very famous athlete had been told he could head up a nonpartisan sports program and then decided to run for the state senate as a Democrat and was then told, look, if you're going to be a Democratic candidate, you can't head up a nonpartisan program.

These are the two, you know, big new things. Where's the scandal?

WOODHOUSE: Look, I think if I think Mr. Cuccinelli said earlier if -- it may have been off the air -- but said earlier that if what's alleged to happen in Hoboken that you can't have Sandy relief if you don't support this project of the governors, that would -- that would have severe implications.

I'm going to say this. I find it interesting the attacks on the mayor. The mayor had not been a persistent Democratic critic. She didn't run against him for governor. If she had, everyone would say, well, she's just a partisan hack.

But here's someone who had praised him and worked with him and said good things about him. And now, well, she's just a partisan hack.

GINGRICH: No, I'm just wondering why is she suddenly -- why is she suddenly shocked?

WOODHOUSE: Well, you know, there are parts of this we don't know. We don't know maybe -- you know, maybe she was contacted by federal prosecutors. I don't know what the entire story here is. And it will come out.

But I don't think she would go give testimony to federal prosecutors that could get her in trouble.

GINGRICH: Federal prosecutors are randomly contacting all 565 mayors. That would be -- that would be overreach.


JONES: Look, I got my final question for you. I actually watched the governor's speech today very carefully, very closely, Chris Christie.

I was actually impressed by one thing. He talked about excessive incarceration. He said they don't want to use incarceration. They believe that everybody counts. Everybody matters.

That really from my point of view, African-American watching this prison system get out of control, I was moved by that.

I wonder from your point of view, is he blowing this thing? Here's an opportunity, he could actually reach me but doesn't he at this point just squander the opportunity to be a national leader at this point?

CUCCINELLI: The biggest problem with things like trafficgate or whatever it's being called, bridgegate or whatever, is that it gets in the way of things that matter to real people's lives. Look, I argued four cases as A.G. Two of them were to exonerate convicted felons. This is a big deal.

JONES: OK, good enough.

CUCCINELLI: And he's losing that opportunity.

JONES: Look, I want to thank our Brad Woodhouse and Ken Cuccinelli.

You can go to Facebook or Twitter to weigh in on our "Fireback" questions. Do Republicans feel embarrassed or not about campaigning with Chris Christie?

Right now, 39 percent of you say proud, but 61 percent say embarrassed.

This debate will continue online at, as well as on Facebook and Twitter.

From the left, I'm Van Jones.

GINGRICH: From the right, I'm Newt Gingrich.

Join us tomorrow for another edition of CROSSFIRE.

"ERIN BURNETT OUTFRONT" starts right now.