In Marathon Presser, Christie Fires Top Aide, Expresses Embarrassment Over Bridge Scandal
At least initially, Chris Christie did what he needed to do to address a story that threatens to overwhelm his political future.
When we first learned yesterday of the e-mail exchanges between a top Christie aide and one of the most prominent decision makers at the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey that apparently led to the politically motivated decision to close several lanes leading to the George Washington Bridge, many people wondered why New Jersey Governor Chris Christie was seemingly so quiet. After all, this is one politician who has never been afraid to take on the press before, and seemingly had the political instincts to know that he needed to get out in front of this story before the feeding frenzy overwhelmed him. Instead, he remained largely behind closed doors at the Governor’s Office in Trenton all day yesterday and it wasn’t until the end of the day that a rather tepid statement was issued denying any foreknowledge of the events described in the emails and promising further action. By the end of the day, and as people woke up this morning, the calls for him to address the growing questions more directly were becoming louder.
Before the end of the morning, though, Christie was indeed out in front of the cameras holding forth in a press conference that lasted nearly a full two hours in which he expressed contrition, anger, frustration, and embarrassment over what he insists are events that he was not fully aware of until he saw the emails for himself yesterday morning:
Gov. Chris Christie apologized to the people of New Jersey on Thursday, saying that he was “embarrassed and humiliated” by revelations that a top aide and other close associates ordered lane closings on the George Washington Bridge to deliberately snarl traffic as an act of political vengeance.
He said he fired that aide, Bridget Anne Kelly, a deputy chief of staff, whom he called “stupid” and “deceitful.”
The revelations became public on Wednesday, when a series of emails and texts showed that members of his administration and others were deeply involved, contradicting the governor’s own earlier public statements on the matter.
“I am heartbroken that someone I permitted to be in that circle of trust for the past five years betrayed that trust,” he said.
In a somber and humbling news conference, Mr. Christie fielded pointed questions for almost two hours. He acknowledged that he would have to work to restore the trust of the people.
Speaking from the State House in Trenton, Mr. Christie acknowledged that he misled the public, but he said he did so unwittingly. He said he was “blindsided” by the revelations, which he learned about only as they became public on Wednesday morning.
“I had no knowledge or involvement in this issue, in its planning or its execution,” Mr. Christie said. “And I am stunned by the abject stupidity that was shown here, regardless of what the facts ultimately uncover, this was handled in a callous and indifferent way.”
It was a dramatic reversal after months of denying that anyone in his administration or campaign played any role in the lane closings, which resulted in a traffic nightmare last September in Fort Lee.
He said that four weeks ago, before publicly addressing the simmering controversy, he gathered his top staff and asked them if anyone had anything to do with the lane closings.
“They all reported that there was no information other than what we already knew,” he said.
“I was being led to believe by folks around me that there was no basis to this,” he said. “I was wrong.”
The fallout from the release of the emails, which are as brazen as they are blunt, reverberated nationally, threatening to undermine Mr. Christie’s carefully cultivated image.
Mr. Christie has been accused of at times bullying political opponents, and he was asked if the tone of the emails was a reflection on his own governing style.
“This is not the tone I have set over the last four years in this building,” he said. “I am who I am. I am not a bully.”
Among other things, Christie said that he initially expressed bewilderment at the idea that the lane closures had any political motive because, as he put it, obtaining the endorsement of the Mayor of Fort Lee had never been on the campaign’s radar as far as he knew. Indeed, that assertion has seemingly been confirmed by the Mayor himself, who said in several media appearances last night that he had never been approached by anyone associated with the Christie campaign about the possibility of an endorsement. Also, in addition to firing his Deputy Chief of Staff, he also severed his relationship with Bill Stepien, the man who ran both his 2009 and 2012 campaigns, was set to become the head of the New Jersey Republican Party, and was in line to get a lucrative consultant’s position with the Republican Governor’s Association, which Christie took over as Chairman at the beginning of the new year. More importantly, Christie said that he had no knowledge of the involvement of these aides in the lane closures, or the contents of the email that become public, until he first saw it himself yesterday morning. Then, after his brief statement, he launched into a round of taking questions from members of the Trenton press corps as well as the plethora of national media that had made the trek to the state capital as soon as the press conference was announced earlier this morning. By the time it was over, the Chris Christie who had walked into the room seemingly contrite, quieter than normal, and looking somewhat drained of energy had transformed back into the Chris Christie of old, and most importantly perhaps giving the appearance of someone who was confident in his position.
Here’s the video of the entire event, via NBC News:
While this is hardly the end of the matter, it must be said off the top that this was, in the end, the classic Chris Christie that we’ve come to know over the past four years. To the extent that a supporter was watching to see how he’d respond today, or a Republican worried about the man who is currently leading the GOP’s 2016 field, you most likely walked away from this feeling fairly confident because, as Chris Cillizza put it, Christie did everything that he needed to do today:
1. He was remorseful and apologetic. There was no hedged apology, no attempt to foist all of the blame on his staff. (He foisted blame on his staff a-plenty but also took plenty on himself.) His tone, which represented a major shift from the brashness and bluster on which Christie has built his national reputation, seemed real and heartfelt. He came across as genuinely surprised to learn about the actions of Bridget Anne Kelly. He used words like “heart-broken”, “humiliated” and “sad” over and over again. For someone like Christie — for whom that tone doesn’t come naturally — he came across as sincere.
2. He fired people. Say what you will about sacrificial lambs but they work. There’s no way that Bridget Kelly was going to keep her job after the emails she sent were revealed. But getting rid of Bill Stepien, a very close political ally of Christie, cuts deep in the Christie organization. Jettisoning both Kelly and Stepien and the rhetoric he used to describe them — he called Kelly’s actions “stupid” and “deceitful” — effectively channeled the anger that people feel about these folks who quite clearly repaid a political vendetta at the expense of the people of Fort Lee.
3. He took questions. Then took some more questions. Then even more. It became clear as the press conference wore on (and on) that Christie and his team had decided beforehand that he was going to stay at the podium until no reporter (or anyone else) in the room could think of any more questions. That seems like the right approach — get out everything you can in a single day and make clear that you are open and ready to answer whatever is asked of you. As the presser wore on, some of the more “traditional” Christie began to peek out — he could have done without his answer on knowing David Wildstein in high school — but we still think politicians are better off going long rather than short when it comes to press conferences called to address controversies.
Cillizza goes on to note, correctly, that there are still potential speed bumps ahead for the Governor, not the least of them being parallel investigations by the New Jersey State Legislature, the U.S. Attorney for New Jersey, and possibly even a Transportation Subcommittee in the United States Senate (Federal Jurisdiction would exist by virtue of the George Washington Bridge’s status as a major interstate traffic conduit.) Additionally, there’s the unknown quantities of people former Deputy Chief of Staff Bridget Ann Kelly, former Campaign Manager Bill Stepien, and former Port Authority offici.al David Wildstein, who is the official that Kelly had communicated with each other about closing lanes near Fort Lee in the emails released yesterday. Today, mere minutes after Christie’s press conference had concluded, Wildstein was asserting his Fifth Amendment privilege in response to every question asked by a State Legislative Committee in Trenton, a response that is not entirely surprising given the potential legal consequences that he and others may face in this matter. We don’t know right now what these people are going to say, or whether there are other documents out there that might implicate people closer to Christie than these, a fact that even Christie admitted when he said that there will be further investigations of the matter.
Those investigations, though, will be largely out of Christie’s hands. What mattered for him today was dealing with the issue of immediate political damage, and what this might mean for his political future. For the moment, he has done the best that he can do in both respects. Some analysts are criticizing the press conference for the extent that it was so much about himself, but that was also a matter largely out of Christie’s control given that the vast majority of the questions were about Christie, what he knew, and when he knew it. Indeed, that seemed to be all that the members of the press, especially the nationally press cared about. To some extent, Christie is addressing the other half of the equation this afternoon with a visit to Fort Lee where he hopes to meet with the Mayor and residents of the city to apologize in person. It’s a small step, but one that is arguably necessary given the bad blood that all of this has stirred up. The irony in all of this, though, is the fact that Christie won Fort Lee by a fairly healthy margin in last November’s election.
The qualifier to all of this, of course, is that Christie is telling the truth. If it turns out that he was more closely involved in the closures than he’s let on, or that he knew about his staff’s involvement far earlier than yesterday, then it’s hard to see him having much of a political future. If that’s the case, though, then, as one CNN analyst put it immediately after the press conference ended, then he is a masterful actor. For the moment, I’m taking Christie at his word, though, and, as I said in my New York Times piece this afternoon, it seems eminently clear to me that this scandal is something that he can easily survive if he just follows the same political instincts that got him where he is today