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New Jersey Gov. Christie says he knew nothing of a plan by some of his closest aides to create traffic jams as political payback to a town mayor.
Christie spoke at a news conference Thursday. He says he had “no knowledge or involvement in this issue in its planning or execution.” He adds that he was stunned by the “abject stupidity that was shown.”
The governor also says he is responsible for their actions. He announced the firing of one close aide.
Emails and texts show that she arranged lane closings to punish the mayor of Fort Lee, who didn’t endorse Christie for re-election. The closings created gridlock for several days last fall.
The scandal threatens to upend Christie’s second term and likely run for president in 2016.
NPR digital politics editor Charlie Mahtesian joins us to discuss the latest.
MEGHNA CHAKRABARTI, HOST:
From NPR and WBUR Boston, I'm Meghna Chakrabarti.
ROBIN YOUNG, HOST:
I'm Robin Young. It's HERE AND NOW. New Jersey Governor Chris Christie held a nearly two-hour press conference today, saying he was blindsided when emails surfaced showing that some of his closest aides created traffic jams on the busiest bridge in the country as political payback against a New Jersey mayor who didn't support Christie's re-election bid.
The U.S. attorney in New Jersey announced today that he's opening an inquiry into the politically motivated closures that snarled traffic in Fort Lee for four days last September.
CHAKRABARTI: Also today, Christie announced that he fired his deputy chief of staff, Bridget Anne Kelly, saying she lied to him.
(SOUNDBITE OF PRESS CONFERENCE)
GOV. CHRIS CHRISTIE: I had no knowledge or involvement in this issue, in its planning or its execution, and I am stunned by the abject stupidity that was shown here. Regardless of what the facts ultimately uncover, this was handled in a callous and indifferent way, and it is not the way this administration has conducted itself over the last four years and not the way it will conduct itself over the next four.
CHAKRABARTI: Well, joining us now with more is NPR digital politics editor Charlie Mahtesian. And Charlie, first of all, let's just get your response to how Christie approached this press conference, what he said. Did you find anything surprising?
CHARLIE MAHTESIAN, BYLINE: Well, all in all a pretty remarkable press conference today, huh?
MAHTESIAN: It was a performance that was clearly marked by humility, and I think Christie also went an extra step by apologizing and accepting full responsibility and announcing some pretty tough consequences for senior members of his staff, not taps on the wrist. He fired a top staffer, disciplined one of his top political aides by asking him not to take over the state Republican Party, as it had been planned.
And according to the governor's account, which, you know, as many people saw, came during a truly exhaustive press conference, the governor was completely blindsided by how all this was handled, and I think that was reflected in his strong language. You know, by saying things like he was embarrassed and humiliated, it suggested a real sense of betrayal.
CHAKRABARTI: Well, you know, Christie's been accused of creating a culture of retribution in the governor's office before. We're going to hear more about that in just a minute. But I also want to talk for a moment about Chris Christie's overall no-nonsense style, I mean sort of the bracing way which he approaches his job as a whole.
And during today's press conference, we kind of heard that because he referred to himself as the chief executive of the state of New Jersey and emphasized the fact that he was taking responsibility for his staff's behavior. Let's listen.
(SOUNDBITE OF PRESS CONFERENCE)
CHRISTIE: Human beings are not perfect, and mistakes are made. And I believe what they expect of me as the chief executive of this state is when that information comes into my possession, that I consider it and then act as swiftly as possible to remediate whatever ill occurred.
CHAKRABARTI: So Charlie, my question to you is, what impact is this going to have on the image of Chris Christie as a no-nonsense chief executive?
MAHTESIAN: Well, there's no question that the scandal taints his image. It's going to remain with him for a very, very long time, and this episode is going to appear in every single national story that's written about him for the rest of his career. But he may have, in some ways, gone a distance toward ameliorating some of the damage with today's press conference, in part because he showed a great deal of humility, especially for him, and he did exactly what you'd expect from someone who cuts that kind of no-nonsense image.
He signaled that heads would roll. He fell on his sword. He conceded that he was humiliated and that he had let the state down. He took full responsibility. There was no dodging or parsing of language, which I think was very important for him. And just as important, he stood at the podium and took his medicine, question after question from the press for close to two hours.
And as you know, Meghna, that's something that politicians rarely do.
CHAKRABARTI: Absolutely, because it's an unscripted opportunity for any sort of gaffe, which of course politics in America today jumps right on. But on that point, let's talk about why people outside of the New York/New Jersey area really care about this. And this is one of the reasons why. Chris Christie himself even said it.
(SOUNDBITE OF PRESS CONFERENCE)
CHRISTIE: Everybody in the political media and in the political chattering class wants to start the 2016 race.
CHAKRABARTI: OK, that's because Chris Christie's name has come up frequently as a potential Republican candidate for president in 2016. What impact is this going to have on those prospects?
MAHTESIAN: Yeah, that's why we all got to see it on CNN and the other cables, because of 2016. But I do think that if we've learned anything from modern politics, it's that there's almost no such thing as a disqualifying event anymore, and that's why there's a good chance that he lives to fight another day here, because we've seen politicians rebound from all kinds of personal indiscretions and awful scandals.
And I think it's also important to keep in mind that 2016 is three years away, and that's an eternity in politics. But, you know, there's no question. He's surely going to carry this question - this baggage into 2016. He's going to be asked about it in every early presidential state. And you can be certain that all of his rivals are going to come to the debates prepared with a zinger about this bridge scandal that's designed to highlight the narrative that Christie is something of a schoolyard bully who can't be trusted with the keys to the White House.
CHAKRABARTI: Charlie, I take your point that the presidential election is a couple years away, but in this day and age you've got to know that there are political operatives out there who are just culling through this tape, ready to resurface it in a couple years from now.
MAHTESIAN: Oh yeah. I think the only thing that I'm curious about is who's going to do the best spot. I mean, you're going to see it in ads. You're going to see him get nailed on it in the primary debates. He's going to be asked about it, and he's going to have to come up with some kind of effective response.
Maybe it's with humor, maybe it's with humility, but it's going to be something that's going to carry along with him for some time to come.
YOUNG: Charlie, Robin here jumping in to point out that they will be culling through tweets as well, because the Twittersphere went crazy over these two hours. Ronan Faro(ph) was tweeting: All my vendettas morph into traffic studies. People were tweeting Gail Collins' comment in the New York Times: Never before has the nation been roiled by a conspiracy to create a traffic jam.
But we should be reminded too, this was very serious business, four days. Ambulances couldn't get over this bridge. School kids were stuck on buses. There was a missing toddler. The search teams couldn't look for her. This was serious.
MAHTESIAN: Right. There was a real abuse of power here. And beyond that, I mean there were tragic human consequences, and I think that's going to play out. We're only beginning to unpeel this onion and to see what happened. It wasn't just people got stuck in cars and were inconvenienced.
There were serious consequences, and the worse they are and the more we learn, the more damaging this could be for the governor.
YOUNG: Well, and by the way, Adam Nigorny(ph) also tweeting something else that happened when Chris Christie is up there for an hour. Adam Nigorny - two hours - does Chris Christie pass the I want this guy in my living room for four years test?
MAHTESIAN: I think there - you know, he answered it about as well as any politician could. I mean this is an awful, awful time for him. This is the worst moment of his political career, and lots could've gone wrong. But I think he was pretty forthright and everything you would've expected from him - that is, going straight at it, not dodging it, not parsing the language, I think all of that probably advanced his cause, and I think he lives on after this.
CHAKRABARTI: Okay. Well, that's NPR's digital politics editor Charlie Mahtesian. Charlie, thank you.
MAHTESIAN: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.
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