The next 24 hours will be crucial for Chris Christie, top Republicans say.
The New Jersey governor, who was on top of the political world two months ago as he cruised to reelection over his Democratic challenger now finds his status as the potential front-runner of the 2016 GOP presidential field imperiled. The test comes with the release of e-mails and text messages that tie top members of his administration to the closure of two lanes leading to a crucial bridge in what appears to be political retaliation against a Democratic mayor who refused to endorse Christie’s reelection.
Republican communications experts are urging Christie, who has thus far limited himself to issuing a brief statement from his Trenton office, to get out in front of the issue. “He should get out on TV, and he should do it today,” says former White House press secretary Ari Fleischer. “He should apologize to the public, apologize to the mayor, he should dismiss his staff, and move forward. He needs to be blunt, he needs to be direct, and he should be himself.” Kevin Sheridan, who ran communications for vice-presidential nominee Paul Ryan during the 2012 campaign, concurs. “This next 24 hours is going to be really tricky for him,” Sheridan says. “It doesn’t help that he’s got the New York media spotlight on him. He needs to get out as much as possible and he needs to get it out now.”
Another top Republican strategist notes that Christie’s relative silence is hurting him by allowing his opponents in the Democratic party and the media to tell the story. “They missed the chance in 2013 to really poison his profile,” says the strategist, “and they’re making up for lost time.”
The governor’s biggest challenge will be to convince the public that, as a member of his inner circle plotted the lane closures and quietly celebrated the resultant traffic snarls – which prevented children from getting to school on time and even delayed emergency responders from reaching those in need – he himself remained ignorant of their misdeeds. Christie had maintained, until today, that neither he nor his staff had anything to do with the lane closures that led to the traffic jams and called the story “sensationalized.” But along with his deputy chief of staff, Bridget Anne Kelly, who appears to have plotted the lane closures, Christie press secretary Michael Drewniak, two-time campaign manager Bill Stepien, and David Samson, a key fundraiser for the governor, are mentioned in or copied on the e-mail chain. Stepien was tapped on Tuesday to serve as the chairman of the state Republican party in part on Christie’s recommendation, and his ascendancy to that position is now in doubt.
Christie’s strength as a political figure has been that he is not viewed as a conventional politician but as a straight shooter. “If he’s gonna make the case that he’s a no nonsense guy, he’s gotta operate in a no nonsense way with the people that misled him,” says the GOP strategist. “Chris Christie and only Chris Christie can provide that level of believability. Right now everybody is talking about him like he’s a conventional politician who is not being forthright.”
In his statement, Christie called the situation “unacceptable” and said he was “saddened” to learn, for the first time, that he was “misled” by a member of his staff.
As Republicans and the citizens of New Jersey await a more substantive response from Christie, the scandal also looms larger, threatening to drag on for months. Former Port Authority official and Christie ally David Wildstein, who is implicated in the scandal, is set to testify on Thursday before the New Jersey state assembly, and state political insiders also predict a protracted battle over the damning e-mails, which were released in redacted form under subpoena. Democrats will push for further disclosures and the Christie administration is likely to assert executive privilege.
Fleischer recalls the Bush administration’s successful battle to keep the identity of advisers to an energy task force confidential, which he says cost the administration political points in the short term but preserved the integrity of the office over the long term. Others argue that, regardless of Christie administration’s forthcoming legal efforts, the information redacted from the e-mails will ultimately come to light. “At every mile post, the truth has eventually gotten out,” says the GOP strategist. If Christie fails to tell his story now, “it will provide an entire calendar year of discussion for this issue,” he says.
Christie has weathered crises before, most notably when New Jersey lost out on hundreds of millions of dollars of federal educations funds in 2010 after supplying incorrect budget figures on an application. When he learned of the error, the governor admitted he had conveyed erroneous information to the public and fired his education commissioner, former Jersey City mayor Brett Schundler.
The current scandal is a more challenging one. “If you’re going to run for president, the media will make issues like this a defining matter if you’re a Republican,” Fleischer says. In that sense, this is an important first test of the Christie political team’s ability to respond to crisis. “Because it’s not a major policy issue but an easily understood issue, especially for a governor whose potential candidacy is really a personality-based candidacy,” says Fleischer, “it shines a light on his personality. He needs to move fast to put it a positive light rather than a negative light.”