New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie got what he wanted most from an internal investigation of lane closures last fall on the George Washington Bridge: a declaration that he had no knowledge of a scandal instigated by some of his aides. Whether he can use it to turn a corner politically is another question.
Anyone watching Christie (R) at his Friday news conference would conclude that the governor believes he is doing just that. The last time he met the Trenton press corps, in January, as the scandal was enveloping his governorship, he was humble and contrite. On Friday, he was the Christie of old — pugnacious, impatient and dismissive of any questions that displeased him.
The internal report that was released Thursday exonerated not only Christie from any involvement in the lane closures, which caused massive traffic delays around Fort Lee, N.J., in September, but all current members of his staff. But it was at best an incomplete report.
The governor’s office hired a team of lawyers — led by Randy M. Mastro of Gibson, Dunn & Crutcher — to investigate. The report they issued blamed the bridge mess on two people. One was Christie’s former deputy chief of staff, Bridget Anne Kelly, who had sent an e-mail saying it was time “for some traffic problems in Fort Lee” and who was fired by Christie in January. The other was David Wildstein, an official at the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey who was the recipient of that message and who had resigned his position.
But the legal team did not interview either of those two, or others whose testimony could have helped fill in some obvious holes in its findings.
The release of the report turned out to be only part of what appeared to be a carefully orchestrated series of events designed to help Christie reemerge publicly after almost three months in which he has shunned the spotlight as multiple investigations played out.
Almost simultaneously with the release of the internal report, Christie was sitting down at his home with ABC News anchor Diane Sawyer for his first nationally televised interview since the scandal erupted with full force in January. He told her he did not think he had created the environment that caused his aides to do what they did. He also touched an important political base by giving a separate interview to Fox News Channel’s Megyn Kelly, the first part of which aired Friday.
Then came the news conference, and on Saturday, Christie was off to Las Vegas to deliver a speech to the Republican Jewish Coalition and perhaps to meet privately with casino magnate Sheldon Adelson, one of the Republican Party’s biggest super PAC donors.
One sequence of political scandals goes something like this: revelation, investigation, conclusion, rehabilitation, redemption. With two investigations still underway — one by the Democratic-controlled state legislature and the other by the office of the U.S. attorney — Christie is a long way from completing that full sequence.
But the deliberate ramping up of activity over the past few days shows how eager the governor is to begin trying to rehabilitate his image, even in the absence of a more definitive conclusion about what happened and why in New Jersey.
Christie has said from the beginning that he knew nothing of the decision to close traffic lanes in an apparent act of political retaliation, and there is no evidence to disprove his statement. The internal inquiry produced no smoking gun that would knock Christie out of the presidential running in 2016.
But the findings are hardly the last word on what happened on the bridge or on the veracity of a charge by Dawn Zimmer, the mayor of Hoboken, N.J., that the Christie administration threatened to withhold Hurricane Sandy relief funding unless she approved a separate development project. The Mastro report concluded that Zimmer’s accusations had no validity.
The Trentonian newspaper in the state capital gave the report a skeptical interpretation in its Friday editions. Its front page included a picture of Christie and two headlines. One read, “Governor’s lawyers clear Christie of wrongdoing in traffic jam scandal.” Below that, in much larger type, were the words, “Conflict of Interest,” suggesting that this was an in-house job.
That’s how many of Christie’s critics view the report. It is at times a dispassionate explication of events that lays out the timeline of what happened. At other times, it offers subjective interpretations and does not reach a conclusion as to the motivations of Kelly and Wildstein. Without testimony from either, the report could not say whether their actions represented retaliation against the Fort Lee mayor for not endorsing Christie for reelection. The report said that Wildstein told Christie about the mess on the bridge but that the governor did not recall the specifics of the conversation.
Kelly’s supporters complained that the report amounted to a sexist attack on a female employee. It revealed that she had a personal relationship for a time with Bill Stepien, Christie’s former campaign manager, that ended around the time of the bridge closures, and it described her as sometimes “emotional.” Asked what he thought about some of the language used to describe Kelly, Christie said it was for every individual to decide. Her attorney called the report “venomous, gratuitous . . . sexist.”
All of this means there is more information to come out. Christie, a former U.S. attorney, has acknowledged that the inquiries being carried out by the Democratic-controlled legislature and by the U.S. attorney’s office could last months. Until they are concluded, the scandal will be with him.
But Christie isn’t waiting any longer. With some Republican donors who could be in his camp looking around at other potential presidential candidates, such as Jeb Bush, and with other possible rivals for the nomination courting donors and activists and offering policy ideas, he appears eager to put himself back into the middle of the conversation. He also wants to take full advantage of what could be a high-profile post as chairman of the Republican Governors Association in a year when there are races in 36 states.
Christie has sustained considerable political damage. His favorability rating in the NBC-Wall Street Journal poll taken in October, just before his reelection, was 33 percent positive and 17 percent negative (with the rest either neutral or having no opinion). In a survey this month, those numbers were upside down, at 17 percent positive and 32 percent negative.
When Fox News’s Kelly asked whether he now has “too much baggage” to run for president, he replied: “That will be for other people to judge. There’s no baggage here because I didn’t do anything. And that eventually will wash out, as it’s starting to already.”
Christie told ABC’s Sawyer that he’s a long way from making a final decision about running in 2016 but that the people of his home state still love him. What about people in Iowa, Sawyer asked. “I think they love me in Iowa, too,” he said with a smile. “I’ve been there a lot. I think they love me there, too.”
Christie can only hope that’s the case, in Iowa and New Hampshire and other states that kick off the process of picking presidential nominees. But he is far from being able to say that with real confidence. That’s why he wants to get moving, even as the investigations continue.