By Eugene Robinson
WASHINGTON — You know a politician is having a bad day when he has to stand before a news conference and plead, “I am who I am, but I am not a bully.”
Frankly, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie was unconvincing on that score Thursday as he attempted to contain a widening abuse-of-power scandal. Moreover, Christie displayed a degree of egocentrism that can only be described as stunning. His apologies would have sounded more sincere if he hadn’t portrayed himself as the real victim.
A bit of background is needed: During his successful re-election campaign last fall, Christie — shown by polls to be a leading contender for the Republican presidential nomination in 2016, should he decide to seek it — tried to run up the score by winning endorsements from elected officials across the state, Democrats as well as Republicans.
The mayor of Fort Lee, the town on the New Jersey end of the George Washington Bridge, declined to give Christie his support. Shortly thereafter, Christie’s deputy chief of staff, Bridget Anne Kelly, sent an email to an official at the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey — the agency that controls the bridge — that said: “Time for some traffic problems in Fort Lee.”
The email went to David Wildstein, who was installed at the Port Authority by Christie and has known the governor since high school. He replied to Kelly: “Got it.”
Four weeks later, on Sept. 9, Wildstein ordered the closure of two traffic lanes approaching the bridge from Fort Lee, ostensibly to conduct a “traffic study.” This may sound like a minor inconvenience, but the George Washington Bridge is one of the most heavily traveled in the country. Closing the lanes caused hours-long traffic jams in Fort Lee for four straight days, snaring commuters in hopeless gridlock. In one widely reported incident, an elderly woman died of cardiac arrest after emergency responders were delayed by the snarl.
Further email traffic involving Kelly, Wildstein and Christie’s campaign manager, Bill Stepien — mostly using their personal email accounts, not their official ones — showed unalloyed glee at the mess Wildstein had created. Finally, a Port Authority higher-up discovered what Wildstein had done and reversed the order.
All along, Christie ridiculed the suggestion that there was any political motivation in the lane closures. On Thursday, faced with proof to the controversy, he apologized and said he had been “betrayed” by staff members and associates he believed he could trust. “I am embarrassed and humiliated by the conduct of some of the people on my team,” he said.
Christie announced that he has fired Kelly — not because she helped create a maddening and dangerous situation for the people of Fort Lee but because she lied when Christie asked all the members of his senior staff whether they had any involvement in the affair.
That was the central message of Christie’s two-hour performance before reporters: I was betrayed by people I trusted. I’m the victim here.
The whole episode “makes me ask … what did I do wrong to have these folks think it was OK to lie to me,” Christie said. He described his principal emotion as “sadness” at the betrayals by associates to whom he had shown loyalty — and from whom he expected loyalty in return.
The governor accepted full responsibility but not an ounce of blame. “Politics ain’t beanbag,” he said, but “that’s very, very different than saying that, you know, someone’s a bully.”
But is it really all that different? Christie maintained that he never sought the endorsement of Fort Lee Mayor Mark Sokolich — never even met him, actually — and therefore had no reason to want him punished. What, then, would make his deputy chief of staff and several of his closest political associates think otherwise?
If Christie is truly in the mood for soul-searching, asking how his aides could tell him such lies should be secondary. The more urgent question is what Christie might have said or done to make these loyal lieutenants conclude it would be appropriate — and a lot of fun — to torment the people of Fort Lee because of the mayor’s refusal to pledge fealty.
Federal prosecutors are reviewing the whole affair. One obvious question is whether other officials who declined to endorse Christie faced retribution of any kind.
If voters see Christie’s pugnacious, in-your-face political persona as refreshing, he has a big future. If they see it as thuggish, he doesn’t. In that sense, you’re right, Governor. This is all about you.
Eugene Robinson is a Washington Post columnist. His email address is email@example.com.