Will budding bridge scandal end Chris Christie’s presidential hopes?

New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie speaks during a news conference at the Statehouse in Trenton, N.J., on Thursday. (AP Photo/Matt Rourke)

By REBECCA BERG / Washington Examiner

New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie has two rules.

One, always do the right thing. Two, always tell the truth.

Anyone who breaks a rule is toast. Period.

“We had a zero-tolerance policy in that regard,” recalled one former aide who worked on Christie’s first gubernatorial campaign, in 2009. “When someone did let him down, he wouldn’t be angry. He would be very calm, just disappointed and sad with you.”

On Thursday, Christie was deeply disappointed and sad.

He said so himself repeatedly during a two-hour news conference, as he conceded that both rules had been broken. Calmly, methodically he took question after question from reporters — trying to diffuse his greatest political threat so far as he prepares for his second term, an important launching pad should he run for president in 2016.

“I come out here today to apologize to the people of New Jersey,” Christie said. “I am embarrassed and humiliated by the conduct of some of the people on my team.”

Three local access lanes to the George Washington Bridge, the world’s busiest span, were closed in September, creating a massive traffic jam in Fort Lee, N.J., to punish the city’s Democratic mayor for not endorsing Christie’s re-election. Christie at first denied that his administration was involved, but emails emerged later showing that his aides not only were involved, but were clearly motivated by politics.

“I had no knowledge or involvement in this issue, in its planning or its execution, and I am stunned by the abject stupidity that was shown here,” Christie said.

On Thursday morning, Christie fired the aide who gave the order for lane shutdown: Bridget Anne Kelly, his deputy chief of staff.

But perhaps the most dramatic proof that Christie recognized the gravity of the scandal came on Wednesday night, when he accepted the resignation of Bill Stepien, his campaign manager.

Stepien had just signed on as a top consultant to the Republican Governors Association, of which Christie is the new chairman, and he was in line to lead the state GOP.
Stepien was also the heir apparent to Christie’s presidential campaign: a would-be Matt Rhoades, who worked on Mitt Romney’s campaign, or David Plouffe, who ran President Barack Obama’s 2008 race.

“The damage here is not to Christie’s ability to be a really strong candidate for president. This is an internal injury, losing Bill Stepien,” said one Republican who has worked with Stepien. “And if your liver’s bleeding, you’re kind of screwed.”

Christie got high marks for his quick and expansive response to the budding crisis, but it will be a while before it’s known whether the episode did any lasting political damage.

“The press conference was a success because Christie used his own voice and style to demonstrate contrition and accountability,” said Kevin Madden, who worked as an adviser to Mitt Romney’s presidential campaign. “Both were previously missing.”

“But,” Madden added, “let there be no doubt that managing this crisis will be a process, not an event. No one press conference can put this to rest.”

The fallout from Christie’s first major controversy as governor might also lay bare a few worrisome fractures in his political facade.

Republicans have harbored doubts that a brash New Jersey politician could make the jump to the national stage. Said one Republican operative with presidential campaign experience, “This episode sums up everybody’s preconceived images of what a Jersey political operation looks like and confirms their worst fears.”

“It was going to be a tough hurdle in Iowa and New Hampshire anyhow,” the operative added, “(but) this makes it tougher.”

Christie has worked tirelessly to foster his brand as a straight-talking, no-nonsense chief executive who puts his constituents ahead of political gain — exemplified by his handling of the devastation to his state by Hurricane Sandy. With this scandal, that image is in jeopardy.

And for Democrats trying to pigeonhole Christie as a “bully” or Republicans who find the New Jersey pol off-putting, Christie’s day of crisis was an irresistible opportunity to say, we told you so.

Even those Republicans who refrained from criticizing Christie hesitated to jump to his defense. South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley, a Republican, did, however — an indication that Christie may still have support from the Republican Governors Association that he now heads.

“(Christie) did the right thing in taking responsibility in a tough situation,” Haley wrote on Facebook. “That’s the kind of leadership that earned him the huge level of trust he has in New Jersey.”

In New Jersey, some Republicans doubt the controversy is sustainable. Christie will deliver his State of the State address next week, and his inaugural is still to come.

But the gravity of this particular scandal, and the aides it claimed, might linger for Christie, who on Thursday allowed for a moment of public introspection.

“What did I do wrong to have these folks think it was OK to lie to me?” Christie said. “There’s a lot of soul searching that goes on with this.”

David M. Drucker contributed to this story.

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