New Jersey Governor Chris Christie held forth at an epic 100-minute press conference to deal with the George Washington Bridge scandal, in which his deputy chief of staff, Bridget Anne Kelly, talked with other officials about closing bridge access lanes in Fort Lee to punish Mayor Mark Sokolich for refusing to endorse Christie’s re-election. Christie is a Republican, while Sokolich is a Democrat. (It’s important to say that for the record, because the media so often forgets to mention the Democratic Party affiliation of Christie’s predecessor, MF Global wrecking ball Jon Corzine.)
Christie did the exact opposite of what President Barack Obama does under these circumstances: he forthrightly apologized to the people affected, made no bones about his honest responsibility for the actions of his subordinates, and fired Bridget Kelly on the spot. His former campaign manager Bill Stepien, who was also involved in the bridge closing scandal, was told to withdraw from involvement with the state Republican Party. For those of you in the media keeping score, that’s more people than Obama has fired over Benghazi, the IRS scandal, and the disastrous ObamaCare rollout combined, even if you count that one ObamaCare navigator who got sacked for the crime of talking to Sean Hannity on the radio.
There’s probably already been as much headline media coverage of “Bridgegate” in one day as there has been of any given Obama scandal in a year. In fact, according to NewsBusters, there has already been 17 times more coverage of the Christie story than the IRS scandal received over the past six months.
There was nothing ambiguous about Christie’s terminations, either. Obama bought himself a news cycle by pretending he was “firing” a few people who actually retired gracefully after the IRS scandal, but Christie wasn’t fooling around. He flatly stated that Kelly lied to him about her role in the bridge closings when he interrogated his staff several weeks ago, which led him to deny his Administration’s involvement in a manner he now describes as embarrassing. He says he will now have “one-on-one discussions myself with the remaining members of my senior staff to determine if there’s any other information that I do not know, and need to know, in order to take appropriate action.”
“I would never have come out here four or five weeks ago and made a joke about these lane closures if I had ever had an inkling that anyone on my staff would have been so stupid but to be involved and then so deceitful as to just not disclose the information of their involvement to me, when directly asked by their superior,” said Christie. “And those questions were not asked, by the way, just once; they were asked repeatedly.”
Christie said he has not spoken to Kelly since the emails were revealed, and has not given her any opportunity to explain why she lied to him. “And I’m, quite frankly, not interested in the explanation at the moment,” he added.
He was equally tough on Stepien:
Secondly, I was disturbed by the tone and behavior and attitude of callous indifference that was displayed in the emails by my former campaign manager, Bill Stepien. And reading that, it made me lose my confidence in Bill’s judgment. And you cannot have someone at the top of your political operation who you do not have confidence in. As a result, I’ve instructed Bill Stepien to not place his name in nomination for state party chairman, and he will not be considered for state party chairman, and I’ve instructed him to withdraw his consultancy with the Republican Governors Association. If I cannot trust someone’s judgment, I cannot ask others to do so, and I would not place him at the head of my political operation because of the lack of judgment that was shown in the emails that were revealed yesterday.
That has also been communicated to Mr. Stepien last night. There’s no doubt that Bill has been one of my closest advisers over the last five years. And so for that too I am sad today to have to take this action. But I also know that I have a job to do. And it’s the job that I’ve asked the people of New Jersey to entrust me with. And I can never allow personal feelings or long-standing relationships to get in the way of doing my job the way it’s appropriate to do it.
Another former official on the hot seat is David Wildstein, who has already resigned from his position at the Port Authority. Shortly after Christie’s press conference, Wildstein pled the Fifth at hearings on the bridge scnadal, and was held in contempt, on the rather dubious grounds that New Jersey’s open-government laws trump the Fifth Amendment. Wildstein was pinned down by the panel and grilled in precisely the way IRS scandal maven Lois Lerner was not; his refusal to testify will probably be held against Chrsitie in precisely the way Lerner’s was not held against Obama.
Christie had this to say about Wildstein, who he went to high school with, but says he is not personally close to:
It doesn’t make a difference except that I think some of the stories (that’ve been written imbued ?) like an emotional relationship and closeness between me and David that doesn’t exist. I know David and, you know, I knew that Bill Baroni wanted to hire David to come to the Port Authority, and I gave my permission for him to do it, but that was Bill’s hire. He asked for permission, I gave my permission for him to hire David. But let’s be clear about the relationship, OK?
And how do I feel about David now? Listen, what I read yesterday makes me angry. That’s the one bit of anger I felt. That language and that callous indifference in those emails from David yesterday, are just over the top and outrageous. It should never, ever have been written or uttered by somebody with a position of responsibility like that, and those sentiments.
The media immediately declares Obama scandals over when the President says the magic words “I take responsibility.” Christie went a lot further than that: “Ultimately I am responsible for what happens under my watch — the good and the bad. And when mistakes are made, then I have to own up to them and take the action that I believe is necessary in order to remediate them.” He noted the large number of people who work for his Administration and said it was impossible for him to personally monitor all of their activities, but nevertheless spoke of his “failure” to prevent the scandalous activity or detect it sooner.
He said he was “blindsided” by the revelation of the emails that showed Kelly and Stepien’s involvement in the bridge lane closings. “I had no knowledge or involvement in this issue, in its planning or execution, and I am stunned by the abject stupidity that was shown here, regardless of what the facts ultimately uncover,” Christie said. “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.”
The Governor announced plans to visit Fort Lee after his press conference, “to meet with the Mayor to apologize to him personally, face to face, and also to apologize to the people of Fort Lee in their down.” He added, “People of those communities for four days were impacted in a completely callous and indifferent way, and I’m going to go and apologize for that.”
The contrast between Christie and Obama was so painfully obvious that even some mainstream media figures took note of it. Another difference is that Obama has a tendency to dash out of press conferences without taking many questions, while Christie just… wouldn’t… stop. He seemed determined to exhaust reporters before closing out his appearance and heading for Fort Lee.
Christie also addressed speculation about what the bridge scandal could mean to his 2016 presidential hopes:
I have no idea what that decision making process would even look like at this point, as I’ve said many times before. And I know that everybody in the political media and in the political chattering class wants to start the 2016 race. And universities can’t help themselves but do polls that are meaningless three years away from an election. And you guys can’t help but put them on the air and talk about them.
My job is to be governor of New Jersey. And I have… I’ll say what I’ve said before. I am enormously flattered that folks would talk about me in my party as someone who they think could be a candidate for president. But I am absolutely nowhere near beginning that consideration process. I haven’t even been sworn in for my second term yet. I’ve got work to do there. And that’s my focus. My focus is on the people of New Jersey and the job that they gave me.
And so all those considerations are, you know, the kind of hysteria that goes around this because everybody in that world gets preoccupied with that job. I am not preoccupied with that job; I’m preoccupied with this one. And as you can tell, I have plenty to do, so it’s not like I got some spare time to spend.
Obviously, the situation will change if there are any damaging revelations to come, particularly a “smoking gun” that links Christie personally to the bridge closings despite his denials. Assuming nothing like that is on the horizon, this will be an interesting test case for the entirely different approaches taken by Christie and President Obama. All the things reporters said Christie “must do” at his press conference were precisely the things Obama never, ever does. Obama deals with scandals by dragging them out forever, keeping a tight-fisted grip on information for as long as possible – even to the point of using executive privilege to block the Fast and Furious investigation. Obama does not fire anyone, ever. He might say something about regrettable mistakes, but he views firing regrettable subordinates as an admission of guilt – blood in the water that will prolong media interest.
The tao of Obama is to drag scandals out for months and years, “winning” one news cycle at a time until interest wanes, at which point his operatives can declare the matter to be an “old story,” of interest only to obsessives. He points fingers of blame quickly, casting his scandals as Republican attempts to sabotage his noble agenda. He gets through news cycles by telling absurd stories like the “spontaneous video protests” of Benghazi, trusting that by the time today’s fabrications are shredded, attention will have moved on to the next round of headlines. He is confident that he will never pay a price for discarded lies or inoperative talking points; only Fox News and conservative bloggers remember anything he said more than two weeks ago.
From that viewpoint, Christie is making a mistake by front-loading information, taking responsibility in a way that makes him look contrite, and firing malefactors. Not only does the swift termination of Kelly and career destruction of Stepian constitute what Obama would see as an admission of guilt – removing the option of sending minions onto the shout shows to declare the whole story a partisan nothingburger – but it creates disgruntled ex-employees who might prove interested in talking to the media. The liberal press has a knack for suddenly rediscovering people with axes to grind, right in the middle of big Republican campaigns. On the media calendar, 2016 will come the day after Bridgegate, but a century after Benghazi.
The best thing about Christie’s performance is that he doesn’t seem to have any illusions about making this story disappear, as Obama has always done. He knows he will be treated differently, and that he won’t cut himself any slack by complaining about it.
(The Washington Post has a full transcript of Christie’s press conference, which you can read here.)