What exactly did Governor Chris Christie need to do to put the erupting scandal in New Jersey in his rear-view mirror, so to speak? The common consensus before his epic press conference this morning was that Christie (a) had to apologize, (b) fire somebody, and (c) hope that it doesn’t go any farther than that. With Christie announcing the termination of key aide Bridget Kelly and the withdrawal of former campaign manager Bill Stepien from his bid to lead the state GOP, Christie has at least covered (a) and (b). Is that enough? The Washington Post’s Chris Cillizza thinks so — at least for the moment:
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 “heart-broken”, “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 emails 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 press 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.
In fact, he took so many questions that some reporters began complaining on Twitter about the length of the press conference — even though that was dictated by the continuing questions from the press. But even though Cillizza thinks Christie did as well as he could with what he has at the moment, the real danger now is either (a) getting blindsided by more unknown revelations about staff involvement in “Bridgegate,” or (b) anything that ties him to either the retribution or prior knowledge of it.
One has to presume that Christie would have inoculated himself against what is analogous to a perjury trap, something with which a former prosecutor would be very familiar. And in part, that’s why the length of the press conference matters — to show that he has nothing to hide, and nothing to fear from questions. If that’s the case — still a big if — then he’s probably defused the worst part of this scandal, and the focus will shift to his underlings. If not, then nothing said in this press conference will help him anyway.
Nevertheless, it doesn’t exactly help Christie to have his former aide David Wildstein repeatedly take the Fifth Amendment in a legislative hearing, to which a court forced him to appear earlier in the day:
Ex-Port Authority official David Wildstein told a state assembly panel on Thursday that he was asserting his right not to testify on the George Washington Bridge scandal engulfing New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie’s administration.
Messages from Wildstein were among those released in documents Wednesday as part of state lawmakers’ investigation into the closure of lanes onto the bridge in Fort Lee, N.J., in September. Democrats allege the closures, which cause dangerous traffic jams for days, were retaliation by Christie allies after the Democratic mayor of the town declined to endorse the Republican governor for reelection. …
“On the advice of counsel, I assert my right to remain silent,” Wildstein said in response to several questions from Chairman John Wisniewski at the beginning of the hearing on Thursday, shortly after Christie ended his press conference on the controversy.
Normally, once a witness takes the Fifth, a legislative panel will dismiss him, but the panel instead forced Wildstein and his attorney Alan Zegas to remain and repeatedly invoke the Fifth. One panel member urged Wildstein not to “be the fall guy,” which gives a sense of where this effort is headed. The panel then decided to hold Wildstein in criminal contempt, which is a ridiculous overreach fueled by their assertion that a state transparency law overrides the Fifth Amendment. Good luck making that argument in court, folks. Now this panel looks like a kangaroo court intent on getting a pound of flesh from Christie rather than doing actual legislative oversight.
Robert Costa live-blogged the hearing, and made this observation:
Wildstein’s decision is a breaking point in the state legislature’s investigation. With Wildstein — per the e-mails an alleged direct participant in the Fort Lee closure — refusing to talk, Christie’s promise to have full disclosure of his administration’s involvement has been challenged.
Well, not really, although people will make that argument. Christie has no more power to force people to testify against themselves as the legislative panel does. Christie pledged transparency, and he has to meet that standard, but the invocation of the Fifth is out of his control. Since Wildstein is no longer in the Christie administration, there is no sanction within his power to apply, either, unlike Lois Lerner at the IRS at the time she took the Fifth.
What do readers think? Did Christie succeed in answering for Bridgegate? Take the poll: