New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie’s stock as a top 2016 presidential candidate rested on his reputation as a blunt, no-nonsense politician who’s not afraid of rubbing people the wrong way if it means getting things done.
But on Thursday, Christie (R) had to push back against the notion that his personality has a petty, vindictive side after it was revealed his staff closed down lanes on the George Washington Bridge to exact revenge against an unfriendly Democratic mayor.
A contrite Christie apologized at a press conference at the state capitol in Trenton. He announced the firing of a deputy chief of staff, Bridget Anne Kelly, whose emails ordered “traffic problems in Fort Lee” in an act of retaliation against the town’s mayor for not endorsing Christie for reelection.
The governor requested that his former campaign manager Bill Stepien, who was also involved in the incident, withdraw from consideration to become chairman of the New Jersey Republican Party and stop consulting for the Republican Governors Association, which Christie helms.
The lane closures caused massive delays on the bridge and have reportedly triggered the U.S. attorney’s office to begin an investigation. Moreover, it has threatened to hurt Christie’s political image, a reality which Christie appeared well aware of on Thursday.
"I am not a focus-group tested blow-dried candidate — or governor," said Christie. "I am who I am but I am not a bully.”
It’s still too early to tell how much of an impact the controversy would have on his presidential prospects. But Christie’s response to it showed how serious he views it as a potential black mark that Democrats — and Republican rivals — could use to bludgeon him in the coming years.
Since the scandal broke, Christie’s opponents have used it to paint the governor as a bully. There have been multiple instances where Christie has berated reporters or political rivals, including in December, when he scoffed at questions about whether he knew about the lane closures.
Christie on Thursday offered a blanket denial that he knew about the plot, and also swatted away the notion that his persona helped foster an atmosphere in which his staff’s conduct was tolerated.
He repeatedly said that his former top staffer Kelly “lied to me” about the closures. And he said that he “lost confidence” in Bill Stepien’s judgment due to the tone of his emails, in which he called Fort Lee’s mayor an “idiot.”
“I had no knowledge or involvement in this issue, in its planning or execution,” he said. “I am stunned by the abject stupidity that was shown here. Regardless of what the facts ultimately show here, this was handled in a callous way and is not the way this administration has conducted itself over the past four years.”
The lane closure controversy has also prompted questions about Christie’s credibility as an executive.
The governor claimed that he only learned about the involvement of his senior staff in the scheme on Wednesday, when he heard about it in media reports. But another statement made it seem as if he had been informed sooner, when Christie claimed he has not “had a lot of sleep the last two nights” while worrying about the controversy.
And how could he not know about the roles his close aides played? Christie conceded he doesn’t “micromanage” his staff. Should he have kept closer tabs on them? The plot was also pointless; despite losing Sokolich’s endorsement, Christie was cruising to reelection. He defeated Democrat Barbara Buono by 22 points.
"Ultimately, I am responsible for what happens under my watch, the good and the bad,” he said.
With the political world’s eyes on him, Christie said he’ll do some “soul searching” about his conduct in office.
“I’ve worked for the last 12 years in public life developing a reputation for honesty and directness and blunt talk, one that I think is well-deserved,” he said. “But when something like this happens, it’s appropriate to question yourself. And I am doing some soul-searching.”
Jordan Fabian is Fusion's politics editor, writing about campaigns, Congress, immigration, and more. When he's not working, you can find him at the ice rink or at home with his wife, Melissa.