TRENTON, N.J. – A newly emboldened and at times combative Chris Christie kicked off his first press conference in more than two months with the attitude that the worst is behind him — but is it?
The New Jersey governor buried a press blitz in a Friday afternoon news dump, with his sights ahead for a weekend in Las Vegas to meet with Republican mega-donor, Sheldon Adelson. He had the wind at his back with the release of an internal report--which he commissioned--clearing the Republican of any wrongdoing related to the George Washington Bridge lane closure plan orchestrated by same of his staffers back in September.
Christie stood confidently in a room packed full of reporters in the state capital Friday afternoon, his second news conference since allegations that the lane closures were politically motivated came to light. But the release of the internal report triggered a firestorm of action from officials caught up in the scandal, proving the "Bridgegate" affair that has dogged Christie's second term is anything but over.
The governor, clearly trying to regain his footing, announced at the top of the news conference that David Samson, the controversial chairman of the New York-New Jersey Port Authority, has resigned in the wake of an investigation into the lane closure plan.
Just hours later, Bridget Kelly, Christie’s famously-fired deputy chief of staff, broke her public silence and in a statement through her lawyer made clear that she would cooperate with federal investigators in exchange for immunity from prosecution. Kelly's statement also claims that Christie’s internal inquiry painted a sexist portrait of her: "She is a single mother of four children who was deeply devoted and committed to her job at the Office of the Governor."
Up until now, the governor – who once led the pack in the nascent race to be the GOP’s presidential candidate in 2016 – has largely avoided the media since the scandal unfolded. Instead, he’s chosen to hold town hall meetings with residents and to raise money in his role as chairman of the Republican Governors Association.
But the internal review, conducted by Gibson Dunn & Crutcher, a law firm that has known ties to the governor, has clearly given him new mojo. When asked at the presser how so-called Bridgegate might affect the 2016 race, Christie said, “The fact of the matter is that I had nothing to do with this. As I said from the beginning, and this report has supported exactly what I said. And in the long sweep of things, any voters, if they consider this issue at all, in considering my candidacy — if there ever is one at all — I’ve got a feeling it’ll be a small element of it, if any element at all.”
In acknowledging his plummeting poll numbers, Christie added, “But there’s nothing that’s permanent about that.”
And for anyone wondering if Christie would refrain from lambasting reporters, as he did for years pre-Bridgegate, the answer is no. Christie at times became testy and combative at the news conference, saying he won’t answer questions based on “assumptions,” calling another question “ridiculous,” and telling a reporter in the middle of asking a question, “Can you get to it already?”
Mo Elleithee, the communications director for the Democratic National Committee, told msnbc.com in a statement that the “old Christie’s back,” characterizing his demeanor at the news conference as “the brash, condescending bully who for years created a culture in his office that led to the Bridgegate scandal.”
Christie said he received a call from Samson saying he was calling it quits after reading the internal review. “He believes the best way to start a new era at the Port Authority is with new leadership.” Christie added, "In line with that belief, David tendered his resignation to me this afternoon, effective immediately. I want to thank him for his service and his friendship."
Many critics had called for Samson’s resignation following e-mails that were made public showing Samson was consulted by those who were involved in the traffic jams. Port Authority of New York and New Jersey executive David Wildstein even wrote to a Christie aide after the lanes were reopened in September 2013: “We are appropriately going nuts. Samson helping us to retaliate.”
The governor had previously maintained Samson had “absolutely no knowledge” of the lane closure plan. And even at the press conference on Friday he said Samson’s resignation was “not essential” and that for the past year, Samson, 74, had been mulling retirement.
In another key moment at the press conference, Christie acknowledged there’s a chance he and the public may never know the reasoning behind the lane closures. "I don't know if we'll ever know what the motive is," he said. The governor added, "As I said when I was here on Jan. 9, it mystifies me on every level why this was done. I hope someday to have an answer to why it was done. But I certainly don't have a crystal ball and I can't tell you if or when I'll ever know. But do I hope to after all this? You bet I hope to."
The internal review does not offer a clear motive as to why Kelly and Wildstein ordered the lane closures. Randy Mastro, the lawyer leading the team who conducted the review, concludes that Wildstein and Kelly knowingly participated in the plan “at least in part” as an effort to exact political revenge against Democratic Fort Lee Mayor Mark Sokolich.
Democrats have largely dismissed the Christie-commissioned internal review. They also point to the fact that Christie’s lawyers were unable to interview four key people at the center of the scandal: Samson, Wildstein, Kelly and the governor’s former campaign manager Bill Stepien.
Christie’s administration is still being investigated by a state legislative panel and by the U.S. attorney’s office.
At one point at the presser, Christie admitted the scandal has affected his self-confidence. "There's no question that this shakes your confidence and if it doesn't shake your confidence, you're arrogant," he said.
But in facing down the press on Friday, Christie was clearly trying to move beyond Bridgegate and regain his stature with a national audience. Indeed, on Thursday, Christie gave his first television interview since the scandal blew up, declaring to ABC News that he doesn’t think the scandal hurt him in Iowa, which holds the important, first-in-the-nation presidential caucuses.
“I think they love me in Iowa, too,” the governor said on World News with Diane Sawyer. “I’ve been there a lot. I think love me there too, especially because of the way I am. Not in spite of, especially because,” Christie added.
In continuing his media blitz, the governor has agreed to be interviewed by Fox News’ Megyn Kelly. The Q&A will air Friday night.