GWEN IFILL: Two East Coast governors under political and legal siege, plus how to streamline American elections and broker a Syrian peace, tonight on “Washington Week.”
FORMER GOVERNOR BOB MCDONNELL (R-VA): (From tape.) I come before you this evening as someone who has been falsely and wrongfully accused and his public service has been wrongfully attacked.
GOVERNOR CHRIS CHRISTIE (R-NJ): (From tape.) Mistakes were clearly made. And as a result, we let down the people we’re entrusted to serve.
MS. IFILL: They were both on the vice presidential short list; 2016 was on their horizons, but Virginia’s Bob McDonnell and New Jersey’s Chris Christie are now each on separate slippery slopes. Will they survive?
PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: (From tape.) I think all of us share the belief that regardless of party affiliation that our democracy demands that our citizens can participate in a smooth and effective way.
MS. IFILL: A new bipartisan commission proposes a way to repair American elections.
BENJAMIN GINSBERG [Co-Chair, Presidential Commission on Election Administration]: (From tape.) We looked for the areas where we could agree without abandoning our principles as opposed to the areas where we knew we would end up disagreeing.
MS. IFILL: But at a conference in Switzerland, the quest for peace in Syria is all about the disagreement.
SECRETARY OF STATE JOHN KERRY: (From tape.) Assad will never have or be able to earn back the legitimacy to bring that country back together.
WALID AL-MUALLEM [Syrian Foreign Minister]: (From tape, translated.) No one, Mr. Kerry, nobody in the world has the right to legitimize a president or a constitution or a law or anything in Syria except the Syrian people themselves.
MS. IFILL: The challenge so far, getting the parties to talk face to face.
Covering the week: Dan Balz of the Washington Post, Pete Williams of NBC News, Alexis Simendinger of RealClearPolitics, and Indira Lakshmanan of Bloomberg News.
ANNOUNCER: Award-winning reporting and analysis, covering history as it happens, live from our nation’s capital this is “Washington Week with Gwen Ifill.”
ANNOUNCER: Once again, live from Washington, moderator Gwen Ifill.
MS. IFILL: Good evening. We love political rising stars. We search them out, we anoint them, we celebrate them, and then sometimes we step back and watch them fall. Often, they seem to trip themselves: in New Jersey by hiring loyal staffers who apparently thought it was OK to punish political enemies by punishing constituents, and in Virginia by accepting lavish amounts of cash and gifts from a political donor and insisting what you did was legal.
Most remarkable in all this, New Jersey’s Chris Christie and Virginia’s Bob McDonnell were at their political peak what seems like just a moment ago. Let’s start by running through the particulars of each case, starting in Virginia, Pete.
PETE WILLIAMS: Well, I guess the difference between Chris Christie and Bob McDonnell is Chris Christie says he didn’t do it. Bob McDonnell says he did but it’s not illegal. He says much of what the government says he did doesn’t violate the law, taking gifts in cash from a Virginia businessman who wanted to promote his line of dietary supplements.
But it’s a jaw-dropping list in the federal indictment. Over $135,000 in cash and gifts, free use of golf outings at private country clubs, buying designer dresses for the first lady of Virginia, expensive watches, catering – paying the catering for their daughter’s wedding.
Now, he says this wasn’t illegal because this was a friend; these were personal favors. And by the way, he said, this is the same kind of promotion that the governor would do for any business in Virginia. So what it hinges on is: were these official acts? The federal government says, yes, they were. He facilitated meetings with state officials. He organized functions at the governor’s mansion. He spoke at meetings for the business this guy was trying to promote. And that’s enough, the government says, to basically end up being corruption.
MS. IFILL: And, Dan, in New Jersey it’s more old-fashioned political muscling that was going on. There’s no talk so far about money changing hands or anything like that.
DAN BALZ: No. It really is – there are now two cases or two examples of, in some form or another, hardball politics, political retribution or something worse. And I think that’s what we’re waiting to find out in terms of these investigations. I mean, this started out initially as a scandal over closing down lanes on the George Washington Bridge, seemingly ordered by the governor’s staff. And he immediately acted; fired the people who seemed to be involved in that or were involved in that.
What’s happened in the last week is that this has expanded on a new front. The mayor of Hoboken, Dawn Zimmer, came forward a week ago on MSNBC, and said the lieutenant governor had said to her that hurricane relief funds for Hurricane Sandy were contingent on her fast-tracking a commercial development project in her city. And the lieutenant governor has denied this, but this is another investigation.
MS. IFILL: Here we have the quid pro quo question, right?
MR. BALZ: Yes.
MS. IFILL: Yeah. OK.
ALEXIS SIMENDINGER: Dan, one of the things that everyone is talking about is what has happened to Governor Christie’s standing, especially in his party, and his hopes to continue to rise on the national stage? What do we know so far about the reaction from the public?
MR. BALZ: Well, there’s no question that he’s taken a hit politically from the public. I mean, the Pew Research Center had a poll out this week. They polled on him a year ago. They polled on him this time. His favorable ratings were essentially the same. His negative ratings had doubled. And interestingly, I thought, was that about 60 percent of the people who were interviewed said they do not believe Christie, who has asserted steadfastly he knew nothing about any of this at the time, and people say they don’t believe that.
The other thing we’ve seen is that in these, you know, sort of hypothetical matchups at this point, pitting Christie against Hillary Clinton in a 2016 race, he’s taken a tumble there. He’s doing less well on those fronts.
MS. IFILL: You know, one of the things I find interesting about this is that in both cases, the best possible take on what happened on these two is that other people – not betrayed so much but other people did things which flashback on them. Bob McDonnell’s case is his wife.
MR. WILLIAMS: It all starts with his wife.
MS. IFILL: Allegedly, allegedly.
MR. WILLIAMS: According to the government, she’s the one – certainly after the inaugural, who goes to this businessman and says, hey, can you buy me a designer dress? The governor staff says you can’t do that. She says, I’ll take a rain check. And she made good on that. They basically – but the question is –
MS. IFILL: The rain check involved a trip to New York City to buy designer clothes.
MR. WILLIAMS: He eventually takes her on a shopping trip to all the big high-end stores in New York and spends something like $15,000 on clothes, which, by the way, she then sends back and says I realized this was just a loan, two years later after the government starts to investigate. But right – if you read the indictment, she is the one who asks for a $50,000 loan because they’re behind in their credit card bills. She’s the one who asked him, according to the government, to pay $15,000 for catering. She’s the one who says, hey, that’s a nice watch; why don’t you get one like that – Rolex watch like that for my husband?
However, the indictment also says that he talked to this businessman, the governor did, about loans as well for himself and his business.
INDIRA LAKSHMANAN: And doesn’t the indictment also accuse them of other crimes? What about lying to the government or not cooperating with the investigation?
MR. WILLIAMS: Yes. The centerpiece of the government’s case against the McDonnells is this corruption charge. Now, of course, she’s not a public official, but they say there’s conspiracy between the two of them so that’s how they sort of wrap her into the conspiracy charge.
But they also say they tried to hide a lot of these assets. They bought stock in this Virginia businessman’s company and then they sold it so it wouldn’t show up on the books, that he didn’t – the governor didn’t report all of these gifts and use of the businessman’s private house and golf outings and so forth.
And they also say that she misled investigators about whether this in fact was an old friendship, that the indictment says that the governor never met this businessman until 2009, when the governor was running for election, and they called him up and said, hey, can we use your plane in the campaign? But she told the FBI, oh, they’ve known each other for 30 years.
MS. IFILL: I have two political questions for you, Dan, about these two guys, one in the case of Chris Christie – you told us of what the polls show, but I wonder if there is any inflexion point politically, some position that he has, anything that will be the next shoe to fall. And the other thing in the case of McDonnell is he’s no longer a governor. They waited a few days after he left office formally to bring this indictment. Was he really on a fast track to anything to 2016? What were his political possibilities?
MR. BALZ: That’s a hard question to answer. I would say he was not on a fast track to 2016. Now, had none of this occurred – he would have been talked about, but I think that there were others – Chris Christie being among them and some other governors and senators – who probably had gone a little farther than he had in being speculated about for 2016 possibilities.
Christie’s situation is pretty clear. He left himself – in his press conferences a couple of weeks ago, he left himself no wiggle room about what he knew or what he didn’t know. If there is anything that comes out in any of this that suggests that that’s not the case, he will take a terrible hit and his national ambitions would probably be over. And I think – I mean, every Republican that I’ve talked to over the last few weeks about this agrees with that.
On the other hand, he’s chairman of the Republican Governors’ Association right now. I mean, people are standing by him. I talked to somebody today who said – donors who give money to the Republican Governors’ Association like Christie. They think he is a strong executive. They think he has handled this as well as you could handle it. They think there’s no reason that he can’t continue to raise money for the RGA.
But I think in the back of everybody’s mind is, I don’t want to get too far out in kind of saying everything is fine because there are two investigations underway and we’re going to learn more things than we know now.
MS. IFILL: And talk about those investigations. Pete, why are these federal investigations? This is pretty simplistic, but why aren’t these just state investigations into minor league malfeasance?
MR. WILLIAMS: Well, in the case of Chris Christie, of course there is a state legislature investigation but there’s also potential federal cases: misuse of federal funds. One of the allegations is they misused the Hurricane Sandy funds. So there is a federal hook, although I must say, when this case first broke, you got the very clear impression that the federal government wasn’t exactly charging to get into it. Now, I think things have changed since the mayor came forward and they seem to be a little more into it now.
And in McDonnell’s case, Virginia really has extremely weak laws against accepting gifts. And the question here is this really troubling question of it’s a federal law to deprive your employer – in this case, the government – of your honest services. That’s the federal government’s hook. But it’s not going to be easy to show because they have to show that in exchange for all this, the governor performed official acts. Now, the governor is saying hosting a thing at the governor’s mansion, showing up and make some speeches, those are not official acts. So this is not a slam-dunk for the government
MS. LAKSHMANAN: I’m wondering, Dan, about the next shoe that it is going to drop with Chris Christie because, you know, I was reading in the New Yorker a column saying that his political career is basically in shambles. And I’m wondering to what extend voters in New Jersey looked at him giving that press conference, where he said, mistakes are made, and how much could they really believe that? I mean, to say –
MS. IFILL: In the interim, it should be said there was a state of the state speech and an inaugural in which he got to look pretty gubernatorial.
MS. LAKSHMANAN: He had a chance to do that, but the question is why wasn’t he investigating this himself back in December when these allegations first came out? Why did it take the subpoenas to bring that information forward before he fired his aide?
MR. BALZ: There’s no good – there’s no good answer to that question as to why he was as dismissive about the bridge scandal when it was percolating, as he was. And perhaps we will learn more about that.
No one knows what the next shoe is that might drop. There are 20 subpoenas that have gone out from the State Assembly Committee. They are now forming a joint committee with the Senate. There are subpoenas that have been issued by the U.S. Attorney’s Office for all the documents that are relevant from the State Republican Party Committee and from Christie’s reelection committee. We can assume that if they’re doing that, they’re also probably issuing some individual subpoenas. So there’s a lot more coming.
MS. IFILL: The same question to you, Pete – shoes dropping for McDonnell?
MR. WILLIAMS: No. I think – I think the government has in exhaustive detail laid out the case against him. And now it’s really – it becomes a legal issue. This is not going to be one of those fact things where we learn new things that he did. This is really going to be a fight about whether what he did is illegal.
MS. IFILL: OK. We have no choice but to watch because it’s like a train wreck. We cannot look away.
About this time last year, President Obama delivered a state of the union speech that promised, among other things, to find a way to make voting easier. No more long lines, streamlined registration, improved accuracy. What could be hard about that? A lot. The Bipartisan Presidential Commission on Election Administration found out just how much. What did they suggest?
MS. SIMENDINGER: Well, one of the things that came out right away was that we have imperfect elections in the United States and they were pretty much predicting that that’s going to continue, although there are lots of recommendations in this report that are an effort to address the disparities that are coming up, not just the disparities in states, but in counties and the jurisdictions. They mention that there are 8,000 jurisdictions that have different rules and controls.
And so one of the first things they said was based on how they were pulled together by the president was voters should not stand in line to vote more than 30 minutes, and that should be the national norm. That should be the goal that the jurisdictions shoot for.
So they worked together in a bipartisan way to pull together expertise. And in this report, it seems like they’re very commonsense things, but they’re trying to embrace things that are happening at all these different jurisdictional levels to say these are best practices, 30 minutes – you shouldn’t stand in line longer.
Online registration to vote, that would really smooth things over and jurisdictions should really adopt that, and they’re offering free tools, you know, online tools for them to embrace.
Early and absentee voting. Great, and they said it’s inevitable. More than a third of the voters in 2012 who participated voted early. So they’re suggesting all of these practical things.
And the one other thing that I wanted to mention, they’re saying we’re heading for a crisis with the machines, the voting machines. And they want the states and the jurisdictions to really embrace this idea that we have antiquated machines, very poor standards that haven’t been updated since 2005, and that all of these states are heading for problems that make voting harder.
MS. IFILL: But every single thing you mentioned, almost every single thing has been the subject of very partisan disagreement, shall we say, especially since 2000. And what’s interesting to me is the two people involved, the co-chairman of this commission, Ben Ginsberg, the Republican, Bob Bauer the Democrat – Bob Bauer worked for Obama but also worked on the Gore side of the 2000 recount. Ben Ginsburg worked for Romney but also worked on the Bush side of the 2000 recount. And yet, does it carry more heft that the two of them were able to sit down at the table together?
MS. SIMENDINGER: Well, it’s a marriage made in heaven and the president decided that there was some utility in having these two foes. And they very quickly said, as they produced this report, they called themselves hacks and they made jokes about each other, and said, outside of this commission we are nemesis. We are enemies to one another in our political dispositions, our outlooks, et cetera.
But they wanted to – both of them are very interested for their various reasons and experiences in improving the election experience and the experience for voters. And they kept indicating that what brought them together is to serve the voters and that there is no partisan disagreement about that.
So there were many things that weren’t in this report. So, for instance, they didn’t want to touch electronic voting, you know, online voting. They didn’t talk about voter ID, which is a subjective of massive and interesting partisan debate, including on Capitol Hill. And, you know, they tried to forge alliance on what they could work together on.
MR. WILLIAMS: So states run elections, not the federal government. What reason is there to think that this report will have any more effect than the film you saw in gym class on good hygiene?
MS. IFILL: It had a deep effect on me.
MS. SIMENDINGER: Pete, I’m so glad you asked it that way. But it turns out that what they were trying to promote after doing four field hearings and going around the country and talking to experts is, A, there are really good – it’s part of public administration. We should think about election administration in that way. And that is a little bit like hygiene class.
But they were also saying that states are hungry for this – that there is a desire to improve the professionalism, that there is a great upsweep of enthusiasm for those who were tasked to do this, sometimes tasked to do it by very partisan politically selected non-experts to do things properly. And they’re saying that they think there will be an embrace, a practical embrace of this in the next election.
MR. BALZ: Do they give any suggestion as to how you make it possible for people to be sure they can vote in 30 minutes? And is there a cost side to this that they addressed?
MS. SIMENDINGER: Yes. So the cost part of it came up with the idea that most of us are used to voting with machines. The machines are antiquated; it takes an enormous amount of resources –
MR. WILLIAMS: When you say machines, by the way, are you talking about the old-fashioned shoot machine where you throw a little switch and pull the lever?
MS. SIMENDINGER: It could be touch screen, because in jurisdictions it varies, right?
MS. IFILL: Right.
MS. SIMENDINGER: In my jurisdiction you can elect to use a touch screen or you can use the punch card paper ballot, right? So what they’re saying is that across the country, they didn’t want to tell people what to adopt but they know that this is going to be an enormous resource issue.
The other thing about the 30 minutes that was interested is that there are some very practical tools now. If you can figure out how long it’s going to take you to do any task now electronically (through ?) these calculators, they’re putting them out for free. There’s at least three versions of them on their website. They want the states and jurisdictions to pick it up. You can figure out how many registered voters you are, how many have early voted, how many are likely to participate in the midterms or presidential election, and you can start to think about how many poll workers you’re going to need. That’s a resource issue. So they can do it.
MS. IFILL: All right. Thank you, Alexis. Secretary of State John Kerry is up to his ears in the stickiest of wickets: trying to promote peace among parties who can’t even agree on why they’re at the table. At issue in Switzerland this week, where warring parties gather to talk peace, is whether Syrian President Bashar al-Assad must first step down.
SEC. KERRY: (From tape.) Because of those things that he has done, because of 130,000 people who have been killed, the opposition will never stop fighting while he is there. And so if your objective is to have peace, this one man must step aside in favor of peace and of his nation. You can never achieve stability until he is gone.
BOUTHAINA SHAABAN [Senior Adviser to President Bashar al-Assad]: (From tape.) It is not up to the people who have never been in Syria or up to the people who have been out of Syria for 30 years who don’t know at all what’s happening on the ground to decide how peace can be made.
MS. IFILL: As of tonight, the sides were talking but not much. What are the prospects for these talks at this point, Indira?
MS. LAKSHMANAN: Well, I have to say, Gwen, in a land of foreign policy, where any kind of peace talks there may be low expectations, Israeli-Palestinian, Iran nuclear negotiations, I have not – I cannot remember lower expectations for peace talks than these. It wasn’t even until a week ago that we knew that the opposition was actually going to participate. I think there are a lot of people who believe that this whole Geneva II encounter has been doomed from the start. And it’s – you know, it’s had the most difficult beginning: everything, arguments about seating, about protocol, about the length of speeches. I mean, before we even get to the topic of substance, what are they arguing about, they can’t agree on even if they’re going to sit in the same room.
MS. IFILL: So they’re living down to expectations.
MS. LAKSHMANAN: Yeah, living down to the lowest of expectations. And the real problem here is that the two sides do not agree on the goals of this conference.
We have Bashar al-Assad’s side, who sees this as a conference about fighting terrorism – that’s how he puts it. Everyone who’s against him, they’re a terrorist. And he’s tried to frame the discussion in that way and has almost tried to reach out to the West, and say, you don’t want more al Qaeda. You don’t want Syria to become a bastion for al Qaeda, like Iraq was, so you should be backing me.
You have the opposition, who are saying, no, the goal of this entire conference is to oust Assad. And you have the two main backers of this conference, the United States and Russia can’t even agree on what the purpose is, where you have Russia essentially saying, well, if Assad goes, it could be worse; you have the United States – you heard John Kerry saying he’s got to go. And behind all of this is a proxy war between Iran on the one side helping Assad and the Saudis on the other side helping the rebels. So it’s a very complicated situation.
MR. BALZ: What then is the point of trying to put these warring sides together?
MS. LAKSHMANAN: I think the point is – and, you know, we heard Hillary Clinton say this 100 times and John Kerry has said it 1,000 times since that they don’t see that there’s a military end to this. And part of this is maybe because the United States is not willing to step up and get in there. And we know that from last fall, when Obama considered but ultimately did not do a military strike even after the chemical weapons attack. He was very hesitant about that. It was really interesting because in a recent interview, he essentially reflected back on it. And although he said he was haunted by what happened in the chemical strike and the fact that, you know, we’ve got more than 130,000 people dead in the three years of war, he also said he didn’t think it would have made much of a difference if the U.S. had stepped in.
So, essentially, I think what the United States’ position is, you have to have peace talks because it’s not going to end on the battlefield. I think Assad increasingly sees in the last nine months he’s made a lot of advances on the battlefield and he thinks he can end it that way.
But, you know, one thing that really struck me this week was Syria’s oddly named national reconciliation minister, who came out and said not if this is a Geneva II, not a Geneva III; there could even be a Geneva X and we’re not going to change our position. So this is what we call in divorce court irreconcilable differences.
MS. SIMENDINGER: As if it wasn’t complicated enough, Iran came into the picture this week and the United Nations had some interesting early invitations, and then, you know, at the White House, it was –
MS. LAKSHMANAN: Right.
MS. SIMENDINGER: So what happened in that bubble to make it awkward?
MS. LAKSHMANAN: Awkward. Yes. That was a surprise invitation that came, from the point of view of the United States, out of nowhere on Sunday that Ban Ki-moon, the U.N. secretary general issued this invitation to Iran. Iran appeared to accept it. Then Iran came forward and said, oh, but, by the way, we didn’t agree to any preconditions. We didn’t agree to the ouster of Assad. Then, the very next day, Ban Ki-moon comes and says, I rescind, I hereby officially rescind the invitation.
MS. IFILL: The invitation you didn’t really accept that we thought you accepted.
MS. LAKSHMANAN: Yes. And the whole thing became very embarrassing. At the same time, it’s really hard to imagine how do you get any solution if you’re trying to have real peace talks if you don’t have one of the main combatants at the table, because Iran is a combatant. They back Hezbollah. Their own forces are fighting alongside Assad’s forces. So how do you solve the problem if they’re not at the table?
MS. IFILL: And that’s what we’re going to wait to see. Maybe this very weekend we’ll see some progress or maybe not. We’ll find out.
Thank you, everyone. We have to stop for now, but the conversation continues online on the “Washington Week Webcast Extra,” where we’ll talk about the politics of gender. It’s back. Thank you, Mike Huckabee. That streams live at 8:30 Eastern Time or you can catch it all week long at pbs.org/washingtonweek. Also online, my take on the great political cartoonist Herblock, in advance of the HBO documentary on his life, which airs this coming Monday.
Keep up with daily developments now seven days a week on the PBS “NewsHour,” including live coverage Tuesday night of the president’s state of the union address. And we’ll see you here right next week on “Washington Week.” Good night.