Chris Christie offered a strong, convincing case Thursday that he had no knowledge of or involvement in the George Washington Bridge scandal -- but if any holes are discovered in his story, the political damage could be significant.
Answering nearly every question the press threw at him, the New Jersey governor explicitly distanced himself from the closing of lanes on the George Washington Bridge last September, which caused massive gridlock in the city of Fort Lee. He emphatically declared that he had no knowledge of the scheme, and only learned of a top aide’s effort to orchestrate some political retribution against the mayor of Fort Lee, N.J. before 9 a.m. on Wednesday.
Those certain declarations by the would-be contender for the 2016 presidential nomination could help reassure Garden Staters and future Republican primary voters.
New Jersey Governor Chris Christie addresses the media regarding the closure of access lanes from Fort Lee to the George Washington Bridge.
The bright-lined defense could also become Christie’s undoing, if any holes in his story are discovered.
“He seemed natural, believable, apologetic and characteristically blunt,” said Ari Fleischer, the former press secretary to George W. Bush and Republican crisis communications guru. “The only thing he has to fear is information that contradicts his statement that he didn't know about the lane closures. Unless that happens, he this issue will likely start to fade, especially in a GOP primary.”
Even a former top adviser to President Barack Obama, David Axelrod, agreed. He wrote on Twitter: “Christie handled about as well as he could. Unless smoking gun turns up tying him to scheme, or others arise, he lives 2 fight another day.”
Christie set out to do just that in the marathon press conference lasting almost two hours, insisting that he has nothing to hide. He said he has suffered sleepless nights, but has given no thought to resigning.
“I take this action today because it's my job,” Christie said at a press conference on Thursday. “I am responsible for what happened. I am sad to report to the people of New Jersey that we fell short.”
Christie also sought to demonstrate action, by announcing he had fired deputy chief of staff Bridget Anne Kelly, whose emails seeking the bridge closures as retaliation against the Democratic mayor of Fort Lee came to light on Wednesday. Christie also cut loose top political aide Bill Stepien, and said he would conduct one-on-one interviews with other members of his senior staff.
The steps reflected an attempt at concrete and affirmative action by Christie to contain and address the burgeoning political crisis, while distancing the governor from the actions of his subordinates.
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It’s also a strategy that could easily unravel if a series of investigations on the state level and a possible federal inquiry unearth any evidence that Christie has been less-than-forthcoming in his explanation today.
“He's done a really good job of humanizing himself. He's in his element right now in apologizing,” said Katon Dawson, a veteran South Carolina Republican operative.
“The question is whether this is the first shoe to drop or the last shoe to drop,” Dawson added. “I suspect he'll fare pretty well about it as long as he’s telling the whole truth and nothing but the truth, so help you God.”
The controversy won’t disappear before 2016. Democrats and Christie’s would-be challengers for the Republican presidential nomination will almost certainly revive the bridge controversy to ding the governor should he decide to seek the presidency.
Christie’s actions on Thursday are about limiting the effectiveness of those inevitable attacks, which are so potentially potent because they cut to the core of the political image the governor has crafted and a central rationale for his presidential candidacy. He said Kelly’s actions were “the exception, not the rule” as to how his administration conducts itself, repeating often throughout his press conference that Kelly had lied to him.
The bridge crisis is one of both style and credibility for Christie. He addressed credibility by steadfastly denying his knowledge or condoning of the bridge closures last Sept. 9, characterizing the retribution scheme as the product of a rogue aide.
The controversy’s effect on how voters view Christie’s signature style of politics could be longer-lasting. His brusque style has sometimes enthralled voters, but risks verging on bullying – a perception that might be solidified by the notion that the Christie’s administration would strongarm local pols who don’t cooperate with his wishes.
Asked whether he’s a bully, Christie responded directly: “I am not.”
“I am not a focus-group tested blowdried candidate -- or governor,” he said, almost seeming to unintentionally refer to 2016 before correcting himself.
Democrats – particularly Christie’s rivals in New Jersey – are almost certainly to press forward with their investigations of the governor. National Democrats have almost giddily harped on the bridge story, with the presidential ramifications well in their minds.
“It’s clear that Chris Christie absolutely created and fostered a culture in his office where this type of conduct was considered appropriate,” said Mo Elleithee, the Democratic National Committee communications director. “Today’s spectacle by the Governor has left many questions still unanswered.”
If voters – both in New Jersey and in the early nominating states of Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina – believe Christie, the bleeding may stop now.
But the margin of error is slim. And Christie’s explanation on Thursday must carry the weight of his presidential ambitions with it.
This story was originally published on Thu Jan 9, 2014 6:16 PM EST