Facing the press in an emergency press conference to save his governorship and political future, 52-year-old recently reelected New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie found himself behind the Eight-ball trying to explain the George Washington Bridge scandal. Responding for two-hours to reporters’ questions, Christie categorically denied having anything to do with the the George Washington Bridge lane closures Sept.9-13. 2013, causing a traffic nightmare for New Jersey residents traveling from New York to Fort Lee, New Jersey in only one lane. Christie denied Dec. 13, 2013, after terminating New Jersey Port Authority appointee Bill Baroni and David Wildstein, that the George Washington Bridge lane closures were political retaliation against Fort Lee Mayor Mark Sokolich for his lack of reelection support. Christie skated on thin ice before his landslide reelection Nov. 5, 2013.
Reporters grilled Christie about what he knew and when he knew it, blaming his Deputy Chief-of-Staff Bridget Ann Kelley. When Christie fired Baroni and Wildstein in December, he called the lane closures a “traffic study,” denying any political vendetta against Fort Lee Mayor Sokolich for not supporting his reelection campaign. “Absolutely unequivocally no,” Christie told reporters Dec. 13 about the growing possibility that Christie’s office retaliated against Sokolich. “I’ve made it clear to everybody on my senior staff that if anyone had any knowledge of this, they needed to come forward to me and tell me about it. And they’ve assured me they don’t,” said Christie Dec. 13. When the New York Times published emails and text messages Jan. 8 showing direct involvement by Christie’s Deputy Chief of Staff Bridget Ann Kelley and his Port Authority appointee Wildstein, it opened a can of worms.
Holding press conference to nip a mushrooming political crisis in the bud was the right idea for the garrulous and silver-tongued Christie. “I am embarrassed and humiliated by the conduct o some of the people on my team,” Christie told the press today, acting as if he knew nothing about the crisis until he read the Jan. 8 New York Times story. Christie knew about the crisis Dec. 13, more than a month after his reelection, when he terminated Baroni and Wildstein. Saying that he was “blindsided” at today’s news conference doesn’t jibe with the Dec. 13 firings of Baroni and Wildstein. Refusing to answer questions today at a legislative hearing, Wildstein exposes the tip of the iceberg as the New Jersey’s U.S. Atty. Paul Fishman’s investigation connects-the-dots up the chain. Christie’s newfound outrage and denials don’t jibe with his Dec. 13 statements firing Baroni and Wildstein.
Christie was quick to dispel rumors that he was a bully and micromanager, denying he knows everything that goes on in his office. “I had no knowledge or involvement in this issue, in its planning and execution,” Christie said about the Sept. 9-13 “traffic study” that closed two-of-three lanes with orange cones on the George Washington Bridge from New York to Fort Lee. “Time for some traffic problems in Fort Lee,” said Kelley in a damning email to Wildstein in Aug. 2013, before Wildstein ordered the lane closures between Sept. 9-13. Saying that he was “heartbroken” and “betrayed,” Christie acted as clueless that the closure was political payback, not a “traffic study,” something he admitted to knowing nothing about. While saying he was “stunned by the abject stupidity that was shown here,” Christie left reporters wondering if the “abject stupidity” was about getting caught.
When Christie insists “I had no knowledge or involvement in the issue, in its planning and execution,” no one needs to believe he was involved any more than President Nixon in Watergate or former VP Dick Cheney in the Valerie Plame affair in “planning and execution.” Hatching the idea and letting underlings “plan and execute” the mission, technically absolves Christie from any operational role. Christie’s statement that “I had no knowledge or involvement in this issue, in its planning or execution” doesn’t mean that Christie’s staff wasn’t given the green light to shut down lanes on the GW Bridge. While Christie tried to nip the crisis in the bud, Fishman hasn’t yet decided whether federal laws were broken. If he asks the FBI to get involved, including interrogating Kelley, Wildsstein, Baronie and others, there could some folks taking the Fifth or singing like a canary.
Kudos to Christie for handling his damage control press conference with skill and decorum. While he still has the luxury of categorical denial, he may change his mind once federal investigators get their hands material witnesses. If Kelley or Wildstein tell investigators that Christie gave his blessings to the George Washington Bridge lane closures, Chrisite won’t have the luxury of categorical denial. Kelley’s incognito and Wildstein’s refusal to answer questions before a state legislative hearings doesn’t look good for the 52-year-old 2016 presidential hopeful. Acting stunned today could play poorly as time goes on, especially after he already dismissed Wildstein and Baroni Dec.13, 2013. Calling Christie’s politics “venomous and petty,” Fort Lee Mayor Mark Sokolich urged Christie to delay his damage control parade. As the story goes on, all roads point to the governor’s mansion.
About the Author
John M. Curtis writes politically neutral commentary analyzing spin in national and global news. He’s editor of OnlineColumnist.com and author of Dodging The Bullet and Operation Charisma.