After watching Chris Christie’s nearly two hour press conference on the George Washington Bridge scandal, I want to revise my declaration—yesterday—that the New Jersey governor is done. His apology was too emphatic—with declarations of “sadness” and “heartbreak”—and his actions too swift—he fired the deputy chief of staff who coordinated the lane closures—for this to barrel out of control and cost him his job or his presidential aspirations.
Of course, this goes the other way: If it turns out that Christie knew anything, in any way, then his career is over, and it’s an open question as to whether he finishes his term as governor. What’s more, even if Christie is telling the truth—and he was genuinely stunned by yesterday’s revelations—it doesn’t help his image as an aggressive, hyper-competent governor. After all, there were five months between when the story broke and when he learned that Bridget Kelly, one of his deputy chiefs of staff, had called for the lane closures.
Given Christie’s own language—in the press conference, he described his staff as “close-knit” and a “circle of trust”—it strains credulity to believe he knew nothing of the incident before now. And if he is this blind to the thuggishness and dishonesty of his close staff, it says nothing good about his ability to manage New Jersey, much less the country he wants to lead. It doesn’t help that he repeatedly called this a “traffic study,” despite the established fact that there wasn’t a traffic study at all, and the evidence that this was purely an act of political retribution.
It’s also striking that, in the question and answer portion of the press conference, Christie spent little time addressing the material impact of the lane closures; indeed, he didn’t mention the associated death until prompted by a reporter. For the last hour or so, the governor seemed aggrieved and narcissistic—as if this was a crime against him and not his constituents. It was a bad look, and one that was worsened by his willingness to mercilessly throw his former employees under the bus.
As for Christie’s presidential chances? They’re still intact. But this scandal makes him vulnerable in a way that wasn’t true last week, and certainly wasn’t true on Election Day, 2013. More than anything, party elites want to hitch their wagon to someone who can win, and someone they can trust. There are other candidates who fit this bill—Scott Walker, chief among them—and those elites might respond to this scandal by giving them a second look.