New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie delivered a bravura performance in a news conference Thursday as he attempted to get out from under a boiling controversy regarding his administration's handling of a traffic imbroglio. But bridge-gate remains a major problem for him both now and looking ahead to a potential 2016 presidential bid.
Let's start with what Christie did right.
1. He was remorseful and apologetic. There was no hedged apology, no attempt to foist all of the blame on his staff. (He foisted blame on his staff a-plenty but also took plenty on himself.) His tone, which represented a major shift from the brashness and bluster on which Christie has built his national reputation, seemed real and heartfelt. He came across as genuinely surprised to learn about the actions of Bridget Anne Kelly. He used words like "heartbroken," "humiliated" and "sad" over and over again. For someone like Christie — for whom that tone doesn't come naturally — he came across as sincere.
2. He fired people. Say what you will about sacrificial lambs, but they work. There's no way that Bridget Kelly was going to keep her job after the e-mails she sent were revealed. But getting rid of Bill Stepien, a very close political ally of Christie, cuts deep in the Christie organization. Jettisoning both Kelly and Stepien and the rhetoric he used to describe them — he called Kelly's actions "stupid" and "deceitful" — effectively channeled the anger that people feel about these folks, who quite clearly repaid a political vendetta at the expense of the people of Fort Lee.
3. He took questions. Then took some more questions. Then even more. It became clear as the news conference wore on (and on) that Christie and his team had decided beforehand that he was going to stay at the podium until no reporter (or anyone else) in the room could think of any more questions. That seems like the right approach — get out everything you can in a single day and make clear that you are open and ready to answer whatever is asked of you. As the presser wore on, some of the more "traditional" Christie began to peek out — he could have done without his answer on knowing David Wildstein in high school — but we still think politicians are better off going long rather than short when it comes to press conferences called to address controversies. (For the record: Christie is STILL going as of the publication of this post.)
Given the circumstances, it was about as good a performance as you could expect from someone like Christie. But while his news conference will sate the political appetite on the story in the near term, there is absolutely no way that Christie has moved beyond the political peril here.
The main reason is that he was absolutely and totally unequivocal about his lack of knowledge and involvement in the decision to close lanes in Fort Lee. Christie said in the presser that he first heard about Kelly's e-mails at 8:50 a.m. Wednesday. He said that he had previously asked senior staff whether there was anything they weren't telling him about the Fort Lee lane closures, and that Kelly lied to him. "I have absolutely nothing to hide," Christie insisted.
Here's the problem with that tack (with the acknowledgment that given Christie's ambition, it's the only approach he could possibly take): If ANYTHING comes out that suggests that he had any sort of involvement in ANY way with the closures of the lanes, he is done for. He left no wiggle room for himself. None. He also insisted that this episode was anomalous in his administration — repeatedly rejecting the idea that he was a bully or fostered a bullying atmosphere within his senior staff.
The digging into every one (or at least many) of the actions taken by the Christie administration is well underway. There is an investigation in the New Jersey Assembly into bridge-gate. There are reports of a federal investigation into the matter. This is in the early stages, not the late ones, and Christie's strong denials on Fort Lee and broader dismissal of the idea of a bullying culture mean that if incidents come to light that contradict those denials, they are even more problematic to Christie and his future than they would have been a week ago.
Christie did what he could in today's news conference. But he didn't solve the problem — or come close to doing so.