Let’s give New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie the benefit of the doubt for a minute.
Let’s say he was blindsided by his very close staff and truly knew nothing about the politically contrived four-day traffic jam that has marred his reputation, cast doubt on his leadership abilities and raised questions about his viability as a 2016 GOP presidential contender.
Would you be reassured by what he told Yahoo’s Matt Bai on Friday?
In an interview published Monday -- his first since that two-hour news conference on Jan. 9 -- Christie said: “I will learn things from this. I know I will. I don’t know exactly what it is yet that I’ll learn from it. But when I get the whole story and really try to understand what’s going on here, I know I’m going to learn things.”
“Learn things?” Not exactly the Straight Talk Express.
Any way you slice it, Christie hired and appointed the people who colluded to make life miserable for New Jersey commuters. Whether he knew about last September’s plan to close lanes leading from Fort Lee to the George Washington Bridge or not, he fostered an atmosphere in which disrupting the lives of thousands of people and sacrificing the public safety was considered an acceptable political ploy. Because he was in charge.
And when he had the opportunity to learn one very important “thing” i.e. why his deputy chief of staff Bridget Anne Kelly wrote, “Time for some traffic problems in Fort Lee,” he passed. Self-preservation trumped the normal human reaction: “Why the hell did you do that?”
We know this because Christie admitted as much at his news conference: “It wouldn’t be appropriate for me to get in the middle of that because then there would be all kinds of other allegations about those conversations.”
I would suggest that the main “thing” Christie needs to learn is how he fostered an atmosphere that made his inner circle think they were executing his desires when they acted like thugs.
He won’t tell us, but perhaps we can glean clues from what he told Yahoo: “Part of politics is trying to have sharp elbows publicly in order to make a deal privately. And if you don’t have the willingness and ability to do that, then the opportunity to make deals privately that benefit the public becomes much more difficult in my view.”
So would it be considered “sharp elbows” to close off lanes of the George Washington Bridge?
I have a feeling the lesson Christie will take from the various investigations now plaguing him is entirely preordained: He is a victim of betrayal, dishonesty (other people’s) and the “ignorance” of people who expect a chief executive to monitor the shenanigans of underlings.
Christie’s been laying the groundwork on this since his news conference. As he told Yahoo:
“You know what one of the scariest things about being governor is? The fact that every day, 65,000 people have letterhead with my name on it and I don’t know what they’re doing all day. Now I understand that people say well, this isn’t one of the 65,000 -- this is someone in your office. ... As I said at the press conference ... if someone doesn’t tell you the truth, there is often very little you can do in reaction to that. So, no, anyone who would say that has no appreciation for what it’s like to be governor or, frankly, chief executive of any kind of major organization. That’s like saying any of these folks who’ve been in trouble in the banking industry, like the JPMorgan Chase thing -- how could Jamie Dimon not have known about a trade that was being put on by a trader in London? Well, you know, I think it’s fairly safe to say that Jamie Dimon didn’t know that a trade was being put on, and that when people lied about it, he didn’t know they were lying. So it happens. It’s awful when it does. Because it’s a breach of trust. So I think that’s a ridiculous criticism and kind of an ignorant one.”
Unfortunately for Christie, it’s the voters, not the JPMorgan Chase board of directors who will decide his career fate. Already, proximity to scandal is starting to slow down the trajectory of a guy who has only known an upward curve since Hurricane Sandy put him in the national spotlight.
His popularity is starting to slide, according to a Monmouth University poll, though not among Republicans. This might not trouble some politicians, but it takes the shine off the notion that what makes Christie special is his crossover appeal.
And the bad news just keeps coming.
Over the weekend, the mayor of Hoboken claimed that the Christie administration held Hurricane Sandy relief funds hostage over a high-rise development deal it wanted Hoboken to approve. Earlier, federal auditors said they are looking into whether Sandy funds were misused when Christie and his family were prominently featured in New Jersey tourism ads during his reelection campaign.
As the new head of the Republican Governors Assn., Christie was supposed to spend this year running across the country raising not just money for Republicans, but his national political profile in anticipation of a possible presidential run.
Instead, it looks like he’s going to be up to his eyeballs for a while in PR crises and investigations. And, you know, learning things.