Ordered Liberty

Will Contrite Christie Save Combative Christie?

Governor Chris Christie’s press conference was impressive. I think he’d be well advised to remember that it was also fairly un-Christie-like. He was not the usual gruff, combative Christie we’ve come to know – the guy who tries to discourage difficult questions by making the questioner feel like a idiot for asking them.

That tactic may have caught up with him in this instance.

Emails confirm that massive September traffic jams on the George Washington Bridge and in Fort Lee were orchestrated by a top Christie aide, Bridget Anne Kelly, and a couple of Christie appointees to the Port Authority – likely in retaliation for the Fort Lee mayor’s refusal to support Christie’s reelection bid. Christie insists these underlings were acting without his knowledge, and that he barely knows Fort Lee mayor Mark Sokolich. To his credit, the governor moved swiftly to fire Kelly and another aide who was implicated – the Port Authority appointees had already stepped down. Christie certainly is not acting like a boss who is worried that disgruntled scapegoats can compromise him, or that other shoes could drop that implicate him. And he managed in his presser to convey that decisiveness and air of innocence with humility and contrition. This serves him well. If there is nothing more to the story, it will help him ride out the downside he is stuck with: his failure to manage his staff competently and his creation of an office climate in which they plainly thought their political hardball was acceptable behavior.

But that is not the end of the matter, at least for now. On December 23, or a little over two weeks ago, when politely asked in a townhall-style radio forum about “Bridge-gate,” the governor was gratuitously dismissive. The Port Authority appointees complicit in the manufactured traffic jams had tried to cover their tracks by claiming the jams had been caused by a “traffic study.” So the radio host asked the obvious question: Had Christie seen the study? The governor shot back: “No. What do I care?” (This can be seen on a video the radio station has released, at about the 2 minute-mark of the 3.5 minute clip.)

He obviously should have cared about the purported cause of the problem. He should have cared even more because he also explained, during the same townhall forum (again, referring to the traffic tie-ups), “I’ve asked my staff to give me a full briefing. They’ve told me everything that we know. None of this makes sense; it’s all about politics. None of it makes sense.”

The radio moderator of the town hall did not wilt under Christie’s back-of-the-hand, “What do I care?” response. He firmly pointed out that, if there had actually been a legitimate traffic study and Christie had seen it, that would do much to lay the controversy to rest. Christie peremptorily waved him off, saying, “No … because they’d find something else.” Translation: It’s all politics, and if my critics were not complaining about this, they’d find some other trifle to inflate into a scandal.

This is peculiar. We are talking about a guy who was first elected governor by portraying himself as a hard-charging, no-nonsense prosecutor who knew how to ask tough questions and get to the bottom of things. In this case, he did not get to the bottom of a straightforward matter involving his own staff and trusted officials he appointed to the Port Authority. The “traffic study” was said to be the root of the controversy … so why wouldn’t it be included in the “full briefing” he demanded of his staff … and why would he take the position that it was so utterly unimportant and beside the point?

The governor waved the whole controversy off as crude politics. But that suggests it was sheer invention – which, quite obviously, it was not. There really were days of horrific traffic jams. An elderly woman really did die – although whether that was actually caused by the traffic jams’ preventing emergency medical personnel from getting to her is far from clear, to say nothing of the ineffable Lawrence O’Donnell’s claim that the deceased will be “the Willie Horton of Chris Christie’s presidential campaign.” There really was a debacle here. Even if Christie sincerely believed that his people were uninvolved and that the exploitation of the debacle by his detractors was a manufactured political scandal, the scandal was clearly not woven out of whole cloth.

If Christie was given a full briefing about the traffic jams, he must have been satisfied that he’d been fully informed about what caused them. And if the explanation that satisfied him was that the tie-ups were all the result of a “traffic study,” how could it be that he wasn’t shown the traffic study? If it wasn’t shown to him in the “full briefing,” why did he not ask to see it? Why didn’t he press his staffers and Port Authority appointees on why the “study” was continued after the first hours or day of monstrous traffic tie-ups?

And why would he bluntly dismiss entirely reasonable questions, posed by a radio moderator on behalf of an audience of New Jersey residents, about whether he had seen the “traffic study”? Christie’s gruffness is part of his persona and it has its place. But a lot of times, it is out of place. This was one of those times.