New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie likes to make a splash at press conferences. But this one, held on Thursday morning, clearly was not the kind of conference Christie ever wanted to hold.
"I am embarrassed and humiliated by the conduct of some of the people on my team," Christie began. "There's no doubt in my mind that the conduct they exhibited is completely unacceptable." And, he added, the people of Fort Lee "were impacted in a completely callous and indifferent way."
"Ultimately, I am responsible for what happens under my watch—the good and the bad"
When Christie first approached his staff on the lane closings, he said he was assured that no one was involved. "And emails I saw for the first time yesterday morning," he said, "...prove that that was a lie." He said he asked those questions of his staff "repeatedly."
Asked if he'd considered resigning, Christie strongly pushed back. "Oh God no...That's a crazy question, man."
News outlets have framed this conference in stark terms. The New York Times, for instance, led its website with a headline that said "His Future at Stake." More liberal outlets yesterday were quick to say this scandal could be the end for him. A more measured view is that it will at least tarnish his crafted straight talk persona. The U.S. attorney's office in New Jersey is opening a preliminary inquiry into the matter—ironic, considering Christie used to hold that position. At least one Christie staffer—Bridget Anne Kelly, a deputy chief of staff—involved in the Port Authority scheme has been fired. "I terminated her employment because she lied to me," Christie said.
"I am heart broken," he added. He said he had no conversations with Kelly after the emails were revealed.
"I never saw this as political retribution, because I didn't think he did anything to us."
Christie maintained that he thought the closures were related to a traffic study. "There may still have been a traffic study," he said, not wanting to rule anything out at this point. "I probably wouldn't know a traffic study if I tripped over it," he said later.
When asked about his leadership, he denied being a micro-manager. "I delegate enormous authority to my staff." That's a line, we'd imagine, that'll be coming up a bunch if the governor does decide to run for 2016. But he also was unclear about the extent to which Kelly had authority over policy issues. "My understanding of Bridget's authority," Christie said, "was that it didn't extend into policy."
Christie was explicitly asked about his thinking on 2016. "I know that everybody in the political media and in the political chattering class wants to start the 2016 race… my job is to be governor of New Jersey."
The governor said that he is "confident" that no one else currently on his staff had "prior knowledge" or involvement with the bridge closures.
Christie said that before yesterday, he never would've been able to pick Ft. Lee's Mayor Sokolich "out of a line-up." "I never saw this as political retribution, because I didn't think he did anything to us." He added later: "Not only did I never have a meeting with him. He was never mentioned to me...This can't have anything to do with politics. I don't even know this guy."
"Ultimately, I am responsible for what happens under my watch—the good and the bad and when mistakes are made I have to own up to them," Christie said. Asked if he's done some "soul searching" over the last day, Christie said "you bet I have."
Asked about a woman who died after emergency responders were delayed by traffic on the bridge, Christie said that "it's awful. I've also seen conflicting reports of cause of death or whatever, but it doesn't matter. It's awful to hear." The governor said that he plans to go to Fort Lee later today to "apologize personally, face to face." "Human beings are not perfect," Christie said. And he followed it up with the ever-classic: "mistakes are made."
Oddly, at one point during the press questioning, Christie was asked if his apology applies to members of the media, too. Christie said it did.
The governor said he learned of the news while working out yesterday morning. "I was blindsided," he said. "You can only imagine as I was standing there in my bedroom with my iPad looking at that how incredibly sad and betrayed I felt." He added later: "I am a very sad person today."
This press conference was in stark contrast to his remarks on the issue before the emails were revealed. For instance, consider this typical Christie bombast when he was asked about the bridge controversy in December. "Unbeknownst to everybody, I was actually the guy out there," the governor said, mocking the question. "I was in overalls and hat, but I was actually the guy working the cones out there. You really are not serious with that question?" Continuing on in his cavalier manner, he said that Loretta Weinberg and John Wisniewski, representatives in the state assembly, were "obsessed" with the issue because "they really have nothing to do."
Acknowledging his past cone-related comments, Christie said "I was being led to believe by folks around me that there was no basis to this…but I was wrong." His office will completely cooperate with any investigation, he added.
As Ezra Klein points out, Christie's staff often mine such candid moments for YouTube clips to bolster the governor's no-nonsense image. That "bullying" image definitely doesn't seem to be helping the governor now. Christie, of course, pushed back on that exact image. "I am who I am," Christie said Thursday, "but I'm not a bully."
"I don't believe I've lost the trust of the people of New Jersey," Christie said towards (presumably) the end of the presser.