Conservatives widely commended New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie’s actions on Thursday in the spiraling bridge-gate scandal, but told Newsmax that any “smoking gun” specifically tying the Republican to the controversial closures last September on the world’s busiest bridge could sink his chances for a White House run in 2016.
“The governor handled it about the best way he could possibly handle it,” former New York City Mayor Rudolph Giuliani said. “Holding a press conference — not running away from it — apologizing profusely for the mistakes, taking responsibility as the chief executive for what his people did wrong, but making it clear that he had no advance knowledge that they did anything like this or that he would have wanted them to do this.
“As long as there is no smoking gun, then this becomes just another situation where a chief executive has people working for him that do things that are foolish,” Giuliani said.
Matt Towery, a debate expert and pollster, said the governor’s news conference and dismissal of a top aide linked to the scandal were “very consistent with Chris Christie — his standard operating procedure both as a governor and as a politician.
“Certainly, someone’s head had to roll over that, and he’s had those heads roll.”
However, “it has to be pretty clear that Christie had no knowledge of this,” Towery added. “If he did, and he takes these sort of actions, then that is perceived by the public as just compounding the situation.
“Then, you get into that big word called ‘hypocrisy’ — the one that I’ve found that takes most politicians down.”
The governor put on “an impressive performance,” political analyst and pollster Doug Schoen told Newsmax. “Christie did what he had to do, but there is a big ‘but.’
“This is a guy who’s had a reputation for being arguably above politics, trying to be nonpartisan, calling it as he saw it — and this involves a petty political scandal that goes right to the heart of his credibility as a manager.
“This does not speak well to his ability to lead the government and to inspire confidence in his staff,” Schoen said.
“Christie is handling the scandal in the right way by firing his staff people,” political consultant Dick Morris said. “The country will accept that he had nothing to do with it, as long as there is no trail that leads to Christie knowing about or ordering the lane closures.
“But the burden of proof is on Christie,” Morris cautioned. “He needs to establish that he had nothing to do with it. The U.S. Senate, under Democratic control, will investigate this through a committee. How Christie handles the committee will be the key test.
“If he appears to be stonewalling, he will be in real trouble.”
Sounding contrite and humbled at a news conference at the state capitol in Trenton,Christie apologized for the closings over five days that created massive gridlock on the George Washington Bridge and said he fired the aide in what critics say was a political vendetta.
“I come out here to apologize to the people of New Jersey,” the governor said at the start of what became a two-hour news conference. “I apologize to the people of Fort Lee. And I apologize to the State Legislature.
“I am embarrassed and humiliated by the conduct of some of the people on my team.”
Christie announced that he had dismissed the aide, Deputy Chief of Staff Bridget Anne Kelly, who sent the email to David Wildstein, the director of interstate capital projects for the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, who resigned last month because of the scandal.
“Time for some traffic problems in Fort Lee,” Kelly wrote. Fort Lee is where the bridge’s toll booths are located.
The gridlock occurred Sept. 9-13, when three of the 12 eastbound toll-booth lanes heading into New York from New Jersey normally dedicated to morning rush-hour traffic were cut one during a traffic study. The other two lanes were used for regular traffic.
The closures have also been linked to delays by emergency responders to at least four medical situations, including one involving a 91-year-old woman who later died at a Fort Lee hospital.
“I terminated her employment because she lied to me,” Christie said on Thursday.
The governor also forced his two-time campaign manager, Bill Stepian, to remove his name from consideration to lead the New Jersey Republican Party. Stepian also will lose a lucrative consulting contract to the Republican Governor’s Association, of which Christie is chairman.
Christie also went to Fort Lee and apologize to Democratic Mayor Mark Sokolich and the city’s residents. Critics have said that the bridge closures were in retaliation for the mayor not supporting Christie’s re-election bid last year.
“Actions have consequences,” Christie said. “I had no knowledge of this issue in its planning and execution. I am stunned by the abject stupidity that was involved here. This was handled in a callous and indifferent way.”
The U.S. Attorney for New Jersey has asked the FBI to help in its investigation into the lane closures. The New Jersey Assembly also is looking into the matter — and Wildstein repeatedly invoked his Fifth Amendment rights in response to questions at an assembly hearing on Thursday.
Reflecting on Christie’s demeanor at the news conference, Andrew McCarthy, a former federal prosecutor and columnist for the National Review, told Newsmax that “it was not only impressive, it was un-Christie-like.
“He can be very gruff with people who ask him questions that he don’t want to answer — and that trait has gotten him in more trouble here.”
When asked in December about the scandal, Christie “dismissed them and gave them the back of the hand,” McCarthy said. “Obviously, it was a much more serious issue than he either believed or led on at the time.”
Washington Post columnist Jennifer Rubin also noted Christie’s disposition in an interview on “The Steve Malzberg Show” on Newsmax TV.
“Here was a guy who was really baring it all, baring his soul — and he used words like ‘humiliated,’ ’embarrassed,’ ‘feels awful,’ ‘sad,'” Rubin said. “These are not emotions one usually connects with him and unless he is a marvelous actor, that is a compelling picture of remorse.”
Tobe Berkovitz, an associate professor of advertising at Boston University, observed: “It’s never surprising when a politician who’s been put up on a pedestal by the media then gets knocked off by the media. The media has sort of this infatuation with Chris Christie — and he has given them an opening to sort of turn him into a New Jersey piñata.
“He’s got a reputation as this larger-than-life, in-your-face, take-no-BS politician,” he added. “The problem is that, this time, the people who paid for that were commuters — and, quite honestly, people care a lot about their commute.
“That’s not a way to get elected president of the United States.”
Towery expressed concerns as to how quickly the U.S. attorney had become involved.
“I don’t know whether this warrants a U.S. attorney’s investigation or not — but it certainly begs questions,” he told Newsmax.
“The idea that the U.S. attorney is jumping into this a day after they became aware of it — I wonder what in the world justifies the need that quickly. If I were Christie’s camp, I would be asking the same question.”
Towery declined to say that the Obama administration might be involved, but noted: “When you see that Christie is clearly a very strong potential candidate for president, and when you hear of something that quickly, it does raise eyebrows.”
Speaking of the White House, many of the observers contrasted Christie’s candor with the lack thereof coming from President Barack Obama on the many scandals that have engulfed his administration.
“Governor Christie did the right thing and demonstrated what leaders do when actions of the team are unacceptable and wrong,” Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Priebus said in a statement. “I wish President Obama would be as transparent and open as Governor Christie was today.”
“President Obama and Hillary Clinton have held no press conference on Benghazi and have done nothing like what Chris did here,” Giuliani told Newsmax. “That counts for something.”
And, if Christie’s version of events hold up, the biggest loser could be Clinton, the former Secretary of State who might be the Democratic nominee for the White House, said political analyst Ron Christie.
“I honestly believe the big loser out of all of this is Hillary Rodham Clinton,” Christie, who is not related to the governor, told the Malzberg show. He is CEO of the Christie Strategies consulting firm.
“‘What difference does it make at this point’ [Clinton’s answer during a Benghazi hearing last January] — that is going to be hung around her neck like an albatross if she decides to jump in the 2016 campaign,” he added. “The parallels of Christie couldn’t be drawn any more stark here.”
“The proof is going to be in the pudding,” said Boston University’s Berkovitz. “Is there a smoking text or smoking email that directly shows that he knew what was going on?
“If that happens, game-set-match, it’s over,” he added. “If not, it’s still a long way away to 2016, and this will always be hanging over his head.”
“It can help, it might hurt,” pollster Schoen told Newsmax. “Bottom line, if you’re a big Republican donor, it takes a big leap of faith to sign on now and write a check.”
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