By Shushannah Walshe
E-mails released Tuesday that appear to connect top aides of New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie to the controversial closure of several lanes on the world’s busiest bridge because of political retribution has the possible presidential candidate’s future now in question.
The e-mails first released by The Bergen Record and obtained by ABC News seem to show Christie aides closing several lanes of the George Washington Bridge because a Democratic mayor loyal to his party — Mark Sokolich of Fort Lee — declined to endorse the governor in his re-election bid.
Christie is often talked about as a possible 2016 presidential candidate, and he openly discusses that he is at the very least “flattered” over the talk.
So will this scandal affect his future political aspirations?
Ruth Mandel, the director of the Eagleton Institute of Politics at Rutgers University, said his future all depends on what Christie says, what his explanation is, if he apologizes.
“I think it has the potential for affecting his governorship and his presidential aspirations, but we don’t know yet how he is going to explain the news that we’ve heard today,” Mandel said. “Really, everyone is waiting to hear from him.”
Christie released a statement Thursday calling the situation “unacceptable” and saying he saw this today “for the first time.”
“I am outraged and deeply saddened to learn that not only was I misled by a member of my staff, but this completely inappropriate and unsanctioned conduct was made without my knowledge,” Christie said, noting the “behavior is not representative of me or my Administration in any way, and people will be held responsible for their actions.”
But, besides the statement, he has not spoken or answered questions on how this was able to happen without his knowledge.
Since his landslide win in blue New Jersey, he’s been seen as the candidate who could sail to the nomination by appealing to both sides of the aisle as well as to traditional Democratic constituencies like Hispanic and African-American voters. But this is Christie’s first big scandal.
“He’s now faced with convincing people that this is something he had nothing to do with and to explain it in such a way that people are satisfied,” Mandel said, adding he must also explain himself how the “people so close to him … felt authorized to do this.”
Christie cancelled an event today and made no public appearances. One of his closest aides, Bill Stepien, his former campaign manager and now an adviser to the Republican Governors Association, seems safe right now from the fallout, despite being in the e-mails, such as one in which he calls the mayor of Fort Lee “an idiot.” An official at the Republican Governors Association confirms that Stepien will continue to advise the RGA in a senior role. He joined the RGA as an adviser after Christie began leading the organization in November. Politico first reported the news of Stepien remaining with the RGA.
The tough-talking governor has been accusing of bullying behavior before and critics say this is the latest example of a leader who uses retribution if he doesn’t get his way. Christie has always said voters appreciate his brashness, but opponents critique it’s not a style that will play outside the Garden State.
Democratic State Assemblyman John McKeon criticized the governor on a radio program in 2010 and was surprised to get a handwritten note from Christie explaining his displeasure, something he said could be seen as threatening and also highlighted in a New York Times story last month that mentioned several examples of behavior that could be viewed as bullying.
“You would hope the head of any organization sets the tone for the people around him,” McKeon told ABC News, referring to the Christie staffers implicated in the scandal. “The utilization of government resources for political retribution, that is sacrosanct and it is something that should never, ever be tolerated.”
As for what this could mean for his future politically, McKeon said it could be “devastating,” not just for 2016, but for the rest of his governorship.
State as well as national Democrats will continue to pursue the story, trying to tie Christie directly to the scandal.
The deputy speaker of the New Jersey state assembly, John Wisniewski, vowed that the “investigation will continue.”
“Either he doesn’t know what’s going on in his front office or that there’s lying going on,” Wisniewski said at a press conference earlier in the day Thursday.
And it’s Christie’s answer to that question that could very well define his political future.