Chris Christie Still Faces Crisis of Confidence

We don’t know how far the scandal goes or whether voters will believe the governor’s denials.

TRENTON, NJ - JANUARY 9: New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie speaks about his knowledge of a traffic study that snarled traffic at the George Washington Bridge during a news conference on January 9, 2014 at the Statehouse in Trenton, New Jersey. According to reports Christie's Deputy Chief of Staff Bridget Anne Kelly is accused of giving a signal to the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey to close lanes on the George Washington Bridge, allegedly as punishment for the Fort Lee, New Jersey mayor not endorsing the Governor during the election. 
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Ron Fournier
Jan. 9, 2014, 7:53 a.m.

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.


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