New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie held a lengthy press conference on Thursday aimed at answering questions about his administration's involvement in the sudden decision to close traffics lanes in the town of Fort Lee last September. But a number of critical questions went unanswered.
Background: The closure of most of the on-ramp lanes leading to the George Washington Bridge between New Jersey and New York the week of September 9 meant a massive traffic back-ups in Fort Lee, slowing emergency vehicles (with dangerous effect) and delaying commuters. The town's mayor, Mark Sokolich, wrote a letter on Thursday of that week, suggesting the closures were punitive.
At the time, two Christie appointees ran the Port Authority's New Jersey arm, both of whom have resigned. One, David Wildstein, had his emails subpoenaed, revealing that Bridget Anne Kelly, deputy chief of staff to Christie, told him shortly before the traffic change that it was "time for traffic problems in Fort Lee."
Christie's press conference lasted about two hours, but there remain some outstanding questions.
If Bridget Kelly hadn't lied, would she be fired?
Christie announced that he fired Kelly after discovering she lied to him. Following allegations last December that the traffic study was an act of political retribution, Christie says he told his staff that they had one hour to tell him if they'd been involved in the decision. One hour later, Kelly didn't speak up. When the emails emerged on Tuesday, he realized she'd lied. "I was lied to," he said. "And for that, she was terminated."
For that? What about her having suggested that it was time for traffic problems in Fort Lee? Christie predicated the punishment of Kelly solely on the discrepancy between her silence earlier and the email revealed yesterday. "I am heartbroken that someone … in that circle of trust betrayed my trust," in his words. While he lamented the language used in the revealed documents, he didn't suggest that Kelly's involvement in the traffic closures played any role in losing her job. So had she not lied, would she have been punished?
Why didn't he know why Kelly sent the email?
Christie said that he didn't speak with Kelly beyond terminating her. He didn't explain why she decided to write the email; he told a reporter that "she had no prior approval from the chief of staff and she had no prior approval from the governor" to be involved in any traffic determinations — something that fell outside of her realm of authority. He agreed with a reporter's "inference" of what the email suggested, but didn't have an answer for her doing so.
He had asked about it, during that one-hour grace period. "Question one was, did you know anything about this." Kelly didn't answer at that point. And when he discovered she lied, he said, "I needed to go no further than that, in terms of making a determination about her future employment." Later, he explained that he didn't want to interfere with the state legislature's investigation by going forward.
If he's interested in rooting out what happened, why would he not have pressed the issue in some way? His prosecutorial experience certainly indicates he could have pressed Kelly on why she sent the message without crossing a legal or ethical line. He said he conducted interviews yesterday with other staffers, and that he would talk to people who worked with Kelly. But in preparation for a lengthy, high-profile press conference — one at which he fought to clear allegations that the closures were linked to political motivations from his administration — he left the key question of motivation completely unanswered.
Why doesn't he know if there was a traffic study or not?
Christie repeatedly indicated that he trusted former New Jersey chief of the Port Authority Bill Baroni's claim that the closures were related to a traffic study. Christie said he was told there was a traffic study — a claim that the chief executive of the Port Authority has denied.
Why can't Christie be certain? He's had more than a month to determine what the truth was behind the decision in Fort Lee, and more than 24 hours during which he's realized that this is a very volatile political issue. How does he not have a concrete answer about what happened? Or, at least, why wasn't he prepared to answer questions about the topic?
If there was an official traffic study, something that Baroni could point to concretely, why wouldn't Christie have that available. If there wasn't, why not explore that before talking to the press?
Why did he think Wildstein resigned from the Port Authority?
Christie explained that Baroni's resignation from the Port Authority was scheduled after the governor was reelected. "All that was very amicable at the time," Christie said, though Baroni's resignation came directly after his questionable legislative testimony.
But even if Baroni's exit was planned, what about Wildstein? Wildstein resigned as questions were being raised about the traffic problems, questions of which the governor was certainly aware. Why Wildstein's resignation didn't raise additional questions wasn't explained. "I have had no contact with David Wildstein in a long time," Christie said. Not even after he resigned?
Christie can't count on the topic going away as long as critical questions like these remain unanswered.