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Christie drops swagger amid heat of scandal

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Posted at 7:03 AM, Jan 09, 2014
and last updated 2014-01-09 16:58:06-05
By Leigh Ann Caldwell

CNN

(CNN) — The usual swagger and bluster were gone. Chris Christie stood contrite and humiliated as he told reporters on Wednesday that he knew nothing about an unfolding political scandal that has upended his administration and could mean bigger problems if he runs for President.

Dressed in a conservative pinstriped suit, with a red tie and a New Jersey pin affixed to his lapel, Christie addressed a packed room off his Trenton office for nearly two hours. He issued a statement and answered questions — checking all the boxes, more than one political analyst noted.

“He stood there and took it,” said John King, CNN’s chief national correspondent, who noted that Christie was uncharacteristically low key as he appeared to understand the gravity of the moment. “It was a very different Chris Christie.”

Hailed as a star within the Republican Party and considered someone with potential White House timber, the no-nonsense Christie is embroiled in an episode worthy of a bad Hollywood script. Top aides captured in e-mails swearing and talking tough about a small town mayor who didn’t endorse the boss for reelection.

Their response: use the authority of a transportation agency to alter traffic patterns at the head of the George Washington Bridge, creating days of gridlock in Fort Lee. It might’ve been shaken off as an embarrassing political stunt, but officials say the tie-ups impacted public safety.

Christie’s tone and message was a valiant attempt to disconnect himself from the embarrassing events that have attracted the attention of federal prosecutors, simultaneously pleading ignorance and accepting responsibility.

He said the buck stops with him but emphatically intoned that he had no knowledge of any aspect of the bridge controversy.

“I am stunned by the abject stupidity that was shown here regardless of what the facts ultimately uncover. This was handled in a callous and indifferent way,” he said.

“I knew nothing about this,” he added, noting as well that he has “nothing to hide.”

He said he was “digging in” and asking questions to find out what occurred.

Prosecutors investigating

Christie said he was “blindsided” by the release of the e-mails and text messages on Wednesday that bolstered claims by Democrats that the traffic jams between September 9-13 were meant to punish Fort Lee Mayor Mark Sokolich.

Christie and his staff originally blamed the closures and the traffic delays on a mishandled traffic study, something he reiterated at his news conference.

He said he didn’t know if it was “a traffic study that morphed into a political vendetta or a political vendetta that morphed into a traffic study.”

The incident inconvenienced motorists but also affected public safety, Fort Lee officials said.

The emergency services chief in the town referred to one case in a letter to the mayor obtained by CNN involving paramedics who were delayed in reaching an elderly woman who had suffered a heart attack and died. She was, however, reached by an ambulance.

Further details of the woman’s death haven’t been released and the mayor told CNN he hopes the traffic tie-ups weren’t ultimately a factor.

‘Time for some traffic problems’

The correspondence subpoenaed by Democrats investigating the matter is the most damaging evidence so far supporting their assertions that the move was orchestrated because Sokolich didn’t endorse Christie’s candidacy in November.

The exchanges began three weeks before access lanes to the bridge were closed, two months before Election Day.

“Time for some traffic problems in Fort Lee,” Bridget Anne Kelly, Christie’s deputy chief of staff for legislative and intergovernmental affairs, said in an e-mail to David Wildstein, then the highest-level appointee representing the state at the Port Authority, which operates the bridge connecting the two states.

“Got it,” Wildstein replied.

In another message about school buses with students on board caught in the traffic jams, Wildstein writes, “they are the children of Buono voters,” apparently referring to Barbara Buono, Christie’s Democratic opponent in the election that he won handily.

Those cited in the series of e-mails and text messages did not respond to requests for comment or to verify the communications.

Christie said he found out for the first time Wednesday that a member of his staff had been connected to the scandal and immediately fired Kelly.

Wildstein, who left his job in December as the Christie administration’s top appointee on the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, refused to answer questions about the matter before a New Jersey Assembly committee that later held in him contempt.

Christie said Sokolich “was never on my radar screen” as someone whose endorsement he was seeking and expressed dismay at why anyone would try to retaliate against him.

“This can’t have anything to do with politics. I don’t even know this guy,” Christie said, adding that he would not be able to pick him out if he walked in the room.

Sokolich said that he welcomed the apology and took no satisfaction from the fallout now pummeling Christie and his administration.

“There’s not an ounce of venom in my system. I take no pleasure in hearing about people getting fired, in hearing about people losing their careers and hearing about people being embarrassed in a national media setting. It doesn’t do anything for me,” he said.

Christie political woes

S.E Cupp, a Republican political strategist and CNN “Crossfire” host, said that Christie was “very believable” and “humble and contrite” during his lengthy appearance that she noted would satisfy some people.

“He’s not completely out of the woods,” Cupp said, noting that there are more questions to be asked.

CNN Chief Political Analyst Gloria Borger said that Christie did well, expressing humiliation and apologizing. But she said he did not answer why one of his top aides thought apparent retribution was a good thing to do.

“The reasoning behind this still remains an issue,” she said.

Rep. Bill Pascrell, a Democrat whose congressional district includes Fort Lee, said the scandal goes beyond e-mails.

“We went from joking about cones in the road to a very sad day,” he said. “I can assure you that this is only the beginning on what’s going to be a long investigation into behavior that’s reprehensible,” Pascrell told CNN in an interview.

As criticisms of Christie’s management style of being heavy handed and petty come to the forefront, Christie said, “I am not a bully.” But he added that he is “soul searching” about why he created an environment in which his staff felt they had to lie to him.

Potential legal case

CNN Senior Legal Analyst Jeffrey Toobin said there was a lot still to unravel regarding communications between the parties and how the decision to disrupt traffic was made.

“That question will be very important for Paul Fishman,” Toobin said of the U.S. Attorney for New Jersey.

But Paul Callan, a CNN Legal Analyst, said he’d bet a criminal case wouldn’t materialize from the basic facts of the incident. But, one could be brought, if there’s any attempt at a cover-up, he said.

Does this mean Christie’s presidential ambitions are dashed?

“Not necessarily,” Oxford University historian Timothy Stanley wrote in an opinion piece for CNN.com. “He’s a resourceful politician and it’s still many months before campaigning starts in earnest. But now, his opponents have a stick to beat him with.

Democrats swarm

Christie is now campaigning for fellow GOP governors as chairman of the Republican Governors Association and is seen as a prime political target for national Democrats. Christie said the scandal would not impact his role with the group.

While Christie blamed his staff and accepted responsibility, he also praised his own response to the fallout, noting that he asked Bill Stepien, a former campaign manager and recently nominated to be the New Jersey GOP chairman, to leave his organization and that he fired Kelly.

Stepien was part of the e-mail chain.

When asked about possible White House aspirations, Christie said that is the last thing on his mind.

“I am not preoccupied with that job. I am preoccupied with that one,” he said.

CNN’s Jake Tapper, Paul Steinhauser, Alan Silverleib, Stephanie Kotuby and Dana Davidsen contributed to this report.

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