By our count, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie answered 94(!) questions over a nearly two-hour press conference Thursday focused on his administration's push to cause a traffic jam in Fort Lee as a measure of political payback.
1. Did Bridget Kelly have the authority to order the closure of lanes in Fort Lee?
Everything we read about Kelly -- including this great profile of her by the Bergen Record -- suggests that it would be decidedly out of character for her to be the political henchman (henchwoman?) for Christie. Writes John Reitmeyer in the Record: "'Talented,' 'pleasant' and 'a good egg' were some of the ways Trenton insiders described Kelly on Wednesday. 'She always steered clear of controversy and has flown under the radar,' said one GOP operative."
Christie, himself, acknowledged as much in his Thursday press conference. "There was no reason, at the time we asked the questions, for us to believe that they weren't true, based upon the conduct of that person," he said of Kelly. " I trusted that I was being told the truth, and I wasn't.....by somebody who I had placed a significant amount of trust in," he added.
Here's Christie's reaction in GIF form (courtesy of BuzzFeed's Benny Johnson):
Given what we know about Kelly and her position within Christie's organization, does it pass the smell test that she acted alone when she issued the political vendetta order and Port Authority official David Wildstein simply carried it out? Maybe. People act out of character -- or outside of our expectations for them -- all the time. But, is there a possibility that someone else -- not necessarily Christie, but a big name in his world -- signed off on it before Kelly made the move? Yes, that possibility exists.
2. Why was Fort Lee Mayor Mark Sokolich targeted?
We now know from the emails and texts revealed earlier this week that Fort Lee -- and the town's mayor -- were purposely targeted for political reasons by a senior member of Christie's staff. But, what we don't know is why. Conventional wisdom is that it's because Sokolich refused to endorse Christie's re-election bid. But, does that really make sense? Christie was crushing state Sen. Barbara Buono (D). Why would his senior staff be so enraged that a DEMOCRATIC Mayor who most people in New Jersey had never heard of wasn't endorsing the governor? Christie made roughly this same point during his press conference. "This can't have anything to do with politics," he said. "I don't even know this guy. How could it be that someone would be doing something like this against a mayor that I never had any conversations with nor any sense that we were even seeking his endorsement?"
Exactly. It would be very strange for so much to grow out of so little. Which raises at least the possibility that someone other than the Fort Lee mayor was the target for the political retribution. (MSNBC host Rachel Maddow has forwarded a theory that the true target was Democratic state Sen. Loretta Weinberg, a longtime Christie nemesis, whose district includes Fort Lee. Nothing in the documents that have been made public to date suggest any such connection.)
3. Why didn't Christie himself interview his senior staff when he asked them if there was anything he didn't know about Bridge-gate?
I brought my senior staff together I think about four weeks ago tomorrow. And I put to all of them one simple challenge: If there is any information that you know about the decision to close these lanes in Fort Lee, you have one hour to tell either my chief of staff, Kevin O'Dowd, or my chief counsel, Charlie McKenna.And I told them that in an hour I was going to go out in a press conference. And if no one gave me other information to the contrary that I was going to say that no one on my staff was involved in this matter.
In the wake of the Kelly-Wildstein emails, Christie has said he is now conducting his own face-to-face conversations with his senior staff about the matter -- and asking them whether or not there is (still) anything else he doesn't know. Why didn't he do that a month ago? Why did O'Dowd and McKenna handle those duties? Obviously, as governor, Christie is a busy guy. But he is also a very smart politician, plenty smart enough to grasp that if he went out and laughed off these allegations of political score-settling -- which he did -- he would be in real trouble if it turned out there was more going on than his staff was telling him. With such high stakes, why did Christie realize only after things got really bad that it was a good idea to look each member of his senior staff in the eye and ask if they were telling the truth?
4. Are there any more episodes like this floating out there?
Christie's defense on Thursday was two-pronged: 1. I didn't know anything about this before this week 2. This episode is an anomaly and not indicative of any broader culture in the administration.
Democrats have long argued that Christie is a political bully masquerading as a straight talker (Buono said Christie runs a "paramilitary organization" on MSNBC Thursday) and that there are many more episodes of political intimidation out there. Are there? We all know about Christie's famous/infamous confrontations with reporters and teachers but will something new come to light that shows the sort of tactics on display in bridge-gate were closer to standard operating procedure than the exception to the rule? Every media organization in the country is currently looking into past decisions made by the Christie Administration to answer that question.
5. What did Kevin O'Dowd know? And can his nomination as state Attorney General go forward?
O'Dowd served as Christie's chief of staff -- and, hence, Bridget Kelly's boss -- during bridge-gate. He is also been nominated by the governor to be the next attorney general of the state -- with his confirmation hearing set to begin next week. At the moment, Dowd isn't implicated in any way, shape or form in bridge-gate and his hearing is expected to go forward. "I expect he'll be vigorously questioned like any candidate for attorney general should be, and I expect that he'll get swift and certain confirmation because he deserves it," Christie said of O'Dowd in Thursday's press conference.
But, given that O'Dowd was Kelly's boss and was one of two people -- along with Christie chief counsel McKenna -- who interviewed all senior staff in the meeting a month ago, he would seem like someone people would want to hear more from before confirming him as the state's top cop.