Apologize, accept responsibility, roll heads, release all relevant documents, cooperate with independent investigators, and believably deny involvement in the bridge-lane closing scandal—those are the hallmarks of accountability and transparency Gov. Chris Christie had to meet at Thursday's news conference to maintain his presidential viability. He addressed some, hedged others, and still faces a crisis of confidence—as a governor, and as a potential U.S. president.
In a column filed before today's new conference, ("How Chris Christie Can Save His Career"), I said Christie's presidential ambitions are dead if he is lying about his innocence. Even if he's telling the truth, Christie's future is troubled, because the political culture that led to such an abuse of trust is a grim reflection of his leadership. I wrote:
Christie needs to come clean about his involvement in the bridge-lane closures, if any, and provide a more believable explanation of when he learned about the activity. Instead of hiding behind spokesmen, lawyers, press releases, and smug assertions, the New Jersey governor needs to apologize, accept responsibility, and release every document and electronic communication about the closures. He should call for an independent investigation and order his advisers to comply.
Finally, he should do as I urged Obama to do last year: Clean house. Fire anybody who knew or should have known about the closures and replace them with people who will change the culture of his office. These charges are sticking to Christie because they fit so neatly into his office's reputation for bullying and arrogance. "He and his staff operate as divas," conservative blogger Erick Erickson wrote in a post titled, "The Politics of A-holes."
So, as a first step, what did Christie address Thursday?
His involvement – "I had no knowledge or involvement of this issue in its planning or execution, and I am stunned by the abject stupidity that was shown here," Christie said, insisting that he was "blind-sided" by the revelation Wednesday that members of his team were involved in closing the lanes to punish a Democratic mayor for defying the governor.
Accept responsibility – "Ultimately, I am responsible for what happens under my watch," Christie said, "the good and the bad, and when mistakes are made I have to own up to them."
Apologize – "I came out here today to apologize to the people of New Jersey. I apologize to the people of Fort Lee, and I apologize to the members of the state Legislature. I am embarrassed and humiliated by the conduct of some of the people on my team." He promised to visit the Fort Lee, N.J., mayor personally and apologize.
Investigations – Christie previously dismissed two independent investigations of the lane closings. On Thursday, he said his attitude was shaped by his advisers' denials of involvement. "I was wrong, and so now having been proven wrong, of course, we'll work cooperatively with the investigations," Christie said. He didn't directly address whether he and his team would give the media and investigators access to all relevant documents.
Fire wrongdoers – He announced the firing of a top aide who played a role in the crippling lane closures on the George Washington Bridge, deputy chief of staff Bridget Kelly. He also forced two-time campaign manager Bill Stepien to withdraw his name from consideration as New Jersey's GOP leader. In addition, he stripped Stepien of a lucrative contract with the Republican Governors Association, which Christie heads. "I am heartbroken that someone who I permitted to be in that circle of trust for the last five years has betrayed my trust," Christie said. "I take this action today because it's my job."
While Christie said many of the right things in a lengthy and wide-ranging new conference—the contrast to President Obama's response to 2013 controversies was unmistakable—his actions were far from dispositive. We don't know how voters in New Jersey and beyond will assess his truthfulness. We can't predict whether the investigations will uncover more wrongdoing. And we need to find out whether the George Washington Bridge incident is isolated, or part of a pattern of abuse.
This is not merely about whether Christie is a bully. What his staff did goes straight to the U.S. tradition of fairness and the rule of law. No form or level of government is truly democratic if its leaders are allowed to essentially say, "Support us or pay a price." That's what Team Christie did, and he's right to be humiliated.