At a press conference that blended political stagecraft with a psychiatrist’s couch, New Jersey Governor Chris Christie addressed the growing scandal around what has become known as Bridgegate. “I come here today to apologize to the people of New Jersey,” Gov. Christie began. “I had no knowledge or involvement in this issue, in its planning or execution and I am stunned by the abject stupidity that was shown here.”
Christie announced that he had fired Bridget Anne Kelly, his deputy chief of staff who sent the email saying “Time for some traffic problems in Fort Lee” that led to bridge closures. And Christie asked his former campaign manager Bill Stepien to withdraw his nomination to run the Republican Party in New Jersey as well as cease his consulting projects with the National Governor’s Association, which Christie now runs.
Beyond that, though, Christie spent the bulk of the press conference—including the Q&A with reporters—pondering how anyone on his team could lie to him about the incident. “I’m sick over this,” Christie said. “What did I do wrong to make these people think it was OK to lie to me?” What Christie did not ponder, however, was what he might have done to make members of his senior staff think it was okay to engage in this sort of politically motivated retributive action. Christie said he hadn’t thought about that at all.
Overall, while Christie’s comments were certainly gripping and indicative of the colorful bluntness for which he has become known—and by some voters, loved—his remarks will likely not quash the media firestorm around Bridgegate nor the pressure to find out precisely what Christie knew, when he knew it and why he didn’t know something or do something sooner.
After all, the media and the conservative activists prodding them surely did not let up regarding any of the scandals that have entrapped President Obama over the last year, even after the President denied his knowledge of and involvement in such incidents. Even now, long after the facts in these incidents were decisively resolved, in the wake of Bridgegate conservatives began straining to draw false equivalencies between this scandal and those they have tried to pin on President Obama—especially the whether the IRS was basing non-profit status decisions based on politics, and the failed gun program known as Fast and Furious which tragically left one ATF agent dead.
Here’s the difference: We still don’t know what Chris Christie truly knew and when he knew it, whereas there have been thorough investigations (including by Republicans in Congress) of the ATF and IRS incidents. Conclusively, not just because he said so but because of these investigations, we can say that President Obama didn’t know about the IRS or Fast and Furious situations until they became public. We can’t say that about Chris Christie yet, and we can’t just take his word for it.
What’s more, while early on, many on the right and left (including yours truly) thought the IRS revelations stank of political bias, we later learned that both conservative and liberal organizations had been scrutinized. In other words, what seemed like a story of political bias was not. And, in other words, what seemed like a scandal really wasn’t. Conversely, the Bridgegate story now clearly and decisively is a real politically motivated scandal.
The other difference is one of proximity. Conservatives have been contorting themselves all year to try and argue that President Obama should have known about the detailed goings-on of an IRS branch in Cincinnati and a gun-walking scheme run out of the Arizona field office of the ATF. If President Obama wasn’t intimately familiar with the workings of these two relatively small components of the entire federal government that he oversees, then conservatives argue President Obama is a weak leader. Compare this grasping-at-straws logic to Christie, now faced with a genuine scandal based on politically motivated spite that originated not with, say, some campaign volunteer hanging leaflets on doors in Penns Grove but the governor’s own deputy chief of staff. Someone in his very own office. One step removed from a direct report.
“I have 65,000 people working for me every day and cannot know what each of them is doing at every minute,” Christie said in his press conference. Yes, but not only did that excuse not work for President Obama—which has over 4.4 million employees. More importantly, this involves staff who are very close to Christie—his deputy chief of staff, his campaign director and maybe others.
Finally, the other contrast is that though Republicans might try to (with not-so-subtle racial undertones) paint President Obama as a “Chicago thug,” he is generally typified and even criticized for being incredibly calm and collected. Not so Christie. Part of the reason this story is blowing up is that it fits with Christie’s image as a bully,—a characterization that story after story shows is justified. So while Christie seems to think nothing in his behavior or character might have implicitly approved of his staff acting like partisan bullies, the outside world sees the obvious connection.
“I am who I am, but I’m not a bully,” Christie said in his press conference. If you have to say it, though, it’s not a good sign.
The public deserves more than Christie’s own assertions that he didn’t know anything about the reasons for these bridge closings until yesterday. Independent investigations about the facts, as well as the full extent of this scandal, must continue. But even if Christie wasn’t involved in directing this event, questions still remain about why he didn’t get to the bottom of it sooner, supposedly continuing to believe it was a “traffic study” despite the fact that media and politicians in both parties were increasingly suggesting otherwise. The New Jersey Assembly launched investigations in November. Why didn’t Christie do the same?
Add to all this that it looks like the incident didn’t just delay traffic, in at least one case emergency medical services were delayed and may have contributed to a woman’s death. Unlike all the incidents conservatives have been desperate to blow out of proportion and manufacture as massive scandals, the Christie bridge situation is a *real* scandal. And from the looks of it, one that isn’t going away anytime soon.