Chris Christie's town hall meetings aren't as fun for him as they used to be. At several of the events this week, a trademark of his pre-scandal governing style, Christie has been accosted by voters about the lane closures on the George Washington Bridge. At last, he's answered one of the four questions he skipped during his January press conference.
At Christie's January press conference — which stretched to nearly two hours, as the governor pointed out three times — he described firing deputy chief of staff Bridget Anne Kelly. Kelly was the sender of the infamous "time for some traffic problems in Fort Lee" email. Christie said he fired her for lying about being involved. At the time, we noted that Christie left open the question of if she could have kept her job by being honest.
On Thursday, Christie traveled to Flemington, New Jersey, to answer questions from residents. One began his question charmingly, complimenting the slimmed-down governor's appearance and inviting him over for drinks. But then he pivoted to ask precisely the question posed above
Emphasis added here: "After Bridget Kelly told you that she had lied to you about her involvement with the closing of the lanes, the next day you had a press conference and said you fired her because she lied to you. … I think that is a very self-centered reason for firing people. Her real offense was being involved in the shutting down of the George Washington Bridge. I don't know if it's illegal; it sure smells bad. … You made the firing contingent on the lie, at least that's what you said in the press conference. The firing should be contingent on the involvement in an illegal act."
Christie hammered the point on his view of the closures repeatedly: "I don't approve of what happened, I didn't approve of what happened, and I'm doing everything I can right now to make sure that something like that never happens again." Here's his full response on Kelly, followed by excerpts (again with emphasis added).
There are lots of reasons for the firing. And what I said the day afterwards was that I can't have someone work for me that lies to me. Because that stuff can extend to a whole variety of subjects that are much broader than just the one that you talked about.
Do not take from my silence on the act that the act was countenanced. In fact, the whole press conference was about the fact that what happened was absolutely unacceptable and that I didn't know anything about it, and if I had, I wouldn't have permitted it. …
But I never had the chance to hear the truth. And the offense, first and foremost, is not being honest with the person you're working for. The secondary offense was, if she had been honest and told me? Yeah, she would have been fired anyway.
Christie's point about the need for honesty is completely valid, of course. He referred to a running joke, that "the most frightening thing about being governor of New Jersey was you have 65,000 people with letterhead with your name on it." But saying that's the "first and foremost" reason Kelly was fired doesn't seem as though it will quell concerns.
Much of the crowd was similarly sympathetic, at least those who got to speak. The Star-Ledger reports that one woman later told Christie, "I feel very sorry for you in the whole situation. People are getting the impression that you’re guilty before you’re proved innocent."
One group not handed the microphone appeared in matching white t-shirts that spelled out "BRIDGEGATE." They stood, hands raised as though to ask a question, but never got a chance to do so.
That group was perhaps related to other protestors that have been hounding Christie at events all week, as the Lehigh Express-Times reported on Wednesday. Protestors in South River "criticized him over the distribution of Superstorm Sandy recovery aid and a political payback scandal overshadowing his administration," the paper reports. "The demonstrators were quickly led outside by police, as some chanted, "New Jersey deserves better.'" Christie blamed organized labor for the disruption.
At that event, state troopers took photos of some of the protestors, an apparent act of intimidation that prompted the state's attorney general to instruct the police to end the practice. Employees can be tough to manage.