Governor Chris Christie appeared humbled in his news conference Thursday as he apologized to the people of Ft. Lee, New Jersey, for the disruptive lane closures on the George Washington Bridge last fall. He also said that he had "no knowledge or involvement" in the closures. While he spoke with reporters for 107 minutes, the incident brings into focus many serious questions about the governor and his administrative team.
Governor Christie was uncharacteristically contrite, regretful, ashamed, and even sad for the actions taken by of key members of his team. "I am stunned by the abject stupidity that was shown here," Mr. Christie said. He announced he had terminated his Deputy Chief of Staff Bridget Anne Kelly because "she lied to me" when, he said, he asked her several weeks ago whether she had any knowledge of the closures.
The governor also announced that he had ended his support for the appointment of his campaign manager, Bill Stepien, as state Republican chairman. Mr. Christie was reelected in a landslide last November. The governor also announced that he had severed political ties with Stepien. "I would not place him at the head of my political operation because of the lack of judgment that was shown in the emails," he said.
The news conference was prompted by email disclosures in the Record, a northern New Jersey newspaper also know as the Bergen Record. Ms. Kelly sent an email last August to a Port Authority executive saying, "Time for some traffic problems in Ft. Lee." The executive, David Wildstein, a childhood friend of the governor's, responded, "Got it." Following the lane closures the Port Authority explained it was part of a last minute traffic study. Later Wildstein admitted ordering the closures, and resigned his post. On Thursday, he appeared before a panel of state legislators and repeatedly invoked his constitutional right not to say anything that might incriminate him.
Speculation grew following the incident that it was in retaliation against Ft. Lee's Democratic mayor, who had not endorsed Mr. Christie's reelection. The mayor, Mark Sokolich, was also the subject of some emails. Bill Stepien, who was deputy chief of staff for intergovernmental affairs, reassured Wildstein at the time, writing, "It's fine. The mayor's and idiot." Stepien worked with local officials throughout the state to arrange town meetings. At Thursday's news conference, the governor, who was Stepien's mentor, said, "reading that, it made me lose my confidence in Bill's judgment, and you cannot have someone at the top of your political operation that you don't have confidence in."
But is Governor Christie telling the truth about his lack of knowledge and involvement in the lane closures? If any evidence to the contrary surfaces, his presidential aspirations will be badly damaged. The people who are so far known to have been involved are all very close to the governor, and in constant contact with him. How could it be they never mentioned anything or "lied" to him? Wildstein answered Kelly's email requesting traffic problems in Ft. Lee tersely, as if it had been a prearranged scheme. Who was behind the lane closures? Did she have the authority?
This was a terrible disruption that took place over several days and created mayhem for thousands of New Jersey commuters who were going to work or school. Why didn't the governor, who says his first priority is serving New Jersey, immediately step in to deal with the problem?
Mr. Christie once served as United States Attorney for New Jersey. He was an aggressive prosecutor, especially against corrupt public officials, and garnered a record of 130 convictions versus zero acquittals. Yet, Christie did not individually question his aides about the closures. Instead, he said he addressed his aides four weeks ago, "I put to all of them one simple challenge: if there is any information that you know about the decision to close the lanes in Fort Lee, you have one hour to tell either my chief of staff, Kevin O'Dowd, or my chief counsel, Charlie McKenna." What happened to the aggressive prosecutor?
The governor has nominated Kevin O'Dowd to be the state's new attorney general. He is scheduled to appear before the state's Senate Judiciary Committee on Tuesday. What was his role in the lane closures? Since Bridget Anne Kelly reported directly to him, did she ever discuss the matter with him? Will he answer relevant questions in Tuesday's hearing or provide emails?
Did the governor receive emails at any point, or have any conversations on the lane closures beyond what he specified in his news conference. The governor was asked by a reporter Thursday, "If you were to get a subpoena, for whatever reason, what would you do?" Governor Christie responded, "I am not going to speculate on that." What does that mean?
The governor has been characterized by his opponents as a politically ambitious, a micromanager, and a bully prone to retribution. "I am not a bully," he said Thursday. "Politics ain't bean bag," he continued, "And everybody in the country who engages in politics knows that." He admitted to having very heated arguments because "I feel passionately about issues. And I don't hide my emotions from people. I am not a focus-group tested, blow-dried candidate or governor."
Along with a legislative inquiry and the U.S. Attorney's investigation, Mr. Christie is facing a class-action suit filed by workers who claim the closures made them late for work and resulted in lost wages. Even if there are no further disclosers implicating the governor, and everything he said Thursday holds up -- and that's a big if -- Governor Christie has a long and difficult road ahead of him.