DOVER, NH — At the very end of a politically successful two-day swing to New Hampshire — the first-in-the-nation primary state that Chris Christie must win if he runs for president — the New Jersey governor stood in the center of Fury’s Publick House and said it was time for the last question of his 90-minute town hall meeting.
The friendly crowd, many with beers in hand on this Friday night, had so far asked for his thoughts on Ronald Reagan, Obamacare and international affairs — topics that Christie handled by dropping stats and anti-Obama rhetoric that the assembled Republicans adored.
Then, came this: “How about a slightly tougher question from an old Jersey girl?”
Eileen Sahagian, originally of Teaneck, N.J. — down the road from the George Washington Bridge — said her father used to work in Fort Lee.
“When I heard about the bridge scandal, I was beyond horrified,” she said. “I still think about it and feel for the people of Fort Lee. You have said that you knew nothing about it and I have to accept that out of respect. However, people with whom you work very closely somehow got the idea that that was okay. And, I’m worried about having a president who has people around him who think that that’s okay. I feel like the people of Fort Lee were the sacrificial lambs. It reminds me of feudal times — I’m furious. Feudal times when the king would say, ‘Who cares about the peasants?’”
Christie’s answer went on for several minutes. It was passionate and defensive. And as he went further on the topic than he has in public in more than a year, he dropped clues about how he will handle the controversy as he runs an expected campaign for president at the same time as criminal cases involving the three alleged Bridgegate conspirators wind their way through the courts.
On the surface, Bridgegate doesn’t seem to matter to most New Hampshire Republicans. He wasn’t asked about it in dozens of other conversations with voters this week, and those interviewed dismissed it as “the bridge thing.” His potential competitors aren’t bringing it up, either. I asked former Texas Gov. Rick Perry on Friday in New Hampshire if it was an issue, and he said no — Christie, he said, handled the situation “appropriately.”
But the specter of scandal appears to have weighed down Christie’s popularity. The latest New Hampshire poll had him as the choice of just 3 percent of GOP voters. That’s why his answer — which smoothed over some details but was described by one voter as “about as brilliant as I’ve heard any politician deal with any scandal like that” — is so important to determining his path forward. Here are excerpts and annotations:
First off, I appreciate, out of respect, whether you really believe it or not, that you believe me. Okay? Because I didn’t know. And the reason you should believe I didn’t know is that it was so monumentally stupid. You can think a lot of different things of me. People can think a lot of different things about me, people have called me a lot of different things over time — stupid has never been one of them.
Christie’s first defense about the fundamental question behind the closures — did he approve it? — is that it was too dumb to have been directed from someone as smart as he is. But the other question is whether his administration created an environment in which this plan of political retaliation against the mayor of Fort Lee was allowed to take hold. Christie dismissed that idea as recently as this week when a reporter raised it. Yet the federal Bridgegate indictment points to an instance in which several meetings between Christie cabinet members and Jersey City Mayor Steven Fulop were suddenly cancelled after Fulop decided not to endorse the governor’s reelection. Such a non-endorsement from Fort Lee Mayor Mark Sokolich is allegedly why the lanes were closed.
That day, the people who, based on the information I had, I believed were responsible for this, were fired.
Only one person whom Christie said was responsible for this — Bridget Anne Kelly, his former deputy chief of staff — was fired. The two others whom US Attorney Paul Fishman alleges are responsible — the Port Authority’s David Wildstein and Bill Baroni — had actually resigned a month earlier, before the full scope of the scandal was clear. Christie edited the resignation statement about Wildstein to make it more laudatory. And at the time the governor said Baroni was planning to leave anyway. If they were pushed out due to Bridgegate, Christie has never acknowledged that.
I went out and stood in front of the national press corps — and New Jersey and New York and Philadelphia — for an hour and 50 minutes. Five zero. And took every question. Less than 24 hours after I found out about this. And answered every question they had, and if any of you watched that, any part of it that day, it was no picnic. And I stood there and said I am not leaving here until I answer every question.
That’s true. Later in his soliloquy Christie referred to other politicians who “when they’ve had problems, obfuscate, hide, dodge, bob, weave, don’t take accountability.” He may have been referring to Hillary Clinton and the Benghazi controversy. And that could be an effective argument should Christie win the nomination and face her in a general election. As New Hampshire State Representative Jack Balcom told reporters earlier that day at a diner after Christie visited: “Nobody died. No US Ambassador got dragged through the town. Okay? If it had been Hillary involved in that bridge scandal you would’ve heard about it for a day. So let’s be fair here. It’s not a big deal.”
“Then, I said to everyone in my administration: “Everyone must fully cooperate with every investigation into this matter.” Myself included. I turned over my cell phone. I turned over my email, both professional and personal, to all of the investigators who asked for them. And said, “Look at whatever you want to look at.”
Christie’s cell phone and email records may have been turned over to Randy Mastro, the lawyer hired by his administration who has so far billed about $8 million in legal fees to taxpayers. But only one email from Christie related to Bridgegate has ever been publicly released — Christie’s edits of his official statement on Wildstein’s resignation. Christie may have sent text messages as the scandal unfolded, but none have been released. In fact a dozen potentially key text messages that Christie sent to an aide during a December 2013 legislative testimony in which the traffic study explanation for the lane closures was being debunked were deleted by Christie. He later said he didn’t recall the text exchange.
And we’ve had three investigations: An internal investigation that I ordered, an investigation by a very partisan Democratic Legislature, an investigation by federal prosecutors. And 15 months later they have come up with the same thing that I came up with the day after, which was there were three people that they believe were responsible, and those people are now being held to account, and will have to go through the justice system and see what happens to them.
Christie’s internal investigation by Mastro and the federal investigation by Fishman did not, in fact, come to the “same” conclusion. First, Mastro never found Baroni culpable for the lane closures (perhaps because Mastro did not interview the same people that a federal grand jury did). But more significantly Mastro described the lane closures as a rogue operation conceived by a crazy person and woman upset over a broken relationship, while Fishman said it was a political revenge scheme orchestrated in order to retaliate against the mayor of Fort Lee for not endorsing Christie’s reelection.
I don’t believe that they thought this was okay by me, because if they did they would have told me. That’s the greatest proof. If they thought they were doing something that I would have loved, why didn’t they tell me? And they didn’t.
Wildstein, however, has claimed he did talk to Christie about the lane closures during a September 11th ceremony at Ground Zero. Pictures from that day show Christie and Wildstein talking and laughing. This could become a key moment discussed at length in court proceedings.
And it has been a painful process. Painful. And so I have previously said I was sorry for what happened because it happened on my watch, and I have to be accountable for it. But being accountable and being responsible are two different things…And so I’m not proud or happy of what happened, but I’m going to stop apologizing for it, too… We’ve done everything that we can and I’m moving on from it now. Because I’ve lived through 15 months of three investigations that have now confirmed everything I’ve said 15 months ago. So I’m glad you raised it, I’m glad you gave me the chance to answer it, and we’re going to move on.
Are these, then, Christie’s final words on Bridgegate? Surely he will have to answer more questions from reporters and voters, particularly as the trials are covered in the news. But if he’s really done talking about it, he may answer those questions by pointing to his long press conference, the three investigations, the apology he made to the mayor of Fort Lee and this very response Friday at the town hall meeting to say, essentially, enough, I’ve said all I’m going to say, and I’m not apologizing any more. If that’s the case, the veiled threat last week from Kelly’s attorney to subpoena the governor is all the more interesting.