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Christie Tries to Rehab Images With Appearances

Gov. Chris Christie, rarely one to fall silent, was holding his first news conference in more than two months Friday to cap a week filled with events designed to clear his reputation after politically motivated traffic jams became the biggest scandal of his political career.

Gov. Chris Christie Holds Town Hall Meeting In Belmar, New Jersey
Kena Betancur, Getty Images

The news conference will be the first time he’s taken questions from a room of reporters since Jan. 9, the day he announced he was firing a staffer and cutting ties with his campaign manager amid revelations that four days of gridlock in September was intended — for reasons that remain unclear — as retaliation against a mayor. Christie’s January news conference lasted nearly two hours, but Christie did not explain what happened.

With the results of investigations by federal prosecutors and a panel of state lawmakers looming without deadlines for completion, the Republican governor now is telling his side.

Or in some cases, it’s being told for him. A report issued Thursday by a law firm hired by Christie’s office and funded, at $650 an hour, by taxpayers, cleared Christie of any involvement in closing the traffic lanes or covering it up.

It also portrayed him as a careful yet emotional leader who looked into the eyes of his top staffers as he asked what they knew about the lane closures. The report also painted the key people who have suggested — or might suggest — wrongdoing by Christie as unbalanced or vindictive.

Democrats blasted the report as one-sided and incomplete.

State Assemblyman John Wisniewski, the co-chair of the legislative committee investigating the traffic tie-ups, said he doubts its conclusion that former Christie aide Bridget Kelly and ex-Port Authority of New York and New Jersey official David Wildstein hatched the gridlock plan on their own.

The report attacked Kelly, Wildstein and Hoboken Mayor Dawn Zimmer, who has accused top Christie officials of threatening to withhold storm aid to her city unless she supported a private real estate development.

The other leader of the lawmakers’ committee, Sen. Loretta Weinberg, said she sees distortions in the report. She said, for instance, that the report characterized an email from the Port Authority’s executive director, Patrick Foye, as complaining that he was not aware of the “lane realignment,” but left out that Foye said something more damning in the same note: that the closures violate federal law and the laws of both New York and New Jersey. The report did mention that assertion later.

Peter Woolley, a political scientist and pollster at Fairleigh Dickinson University, said it’s natural that there would be doubts about the credibility of the Christie-commissioned report. “You don’t get to conduct an investigation of yourself,” Woolley said.

Then again, Woolley said, “people have told me he was exonerated. A lot of people get their news sideways, out of the corner of their eye.”

Woolley said it’s no coincidence that Christie appeared in his first TV interview in months — with Diane Sawyer on ABC — the same day the report from politically connected lawyer Randy Mastro was released.

That was maybe his highest-profile moment in a week when his narrative has been built in multiple steps.

The New York Times on Monday, citing unnamed sources, reported some details of Mastro’s findings.

Thursday, the report was released in full and Christie appeared with Sawyer.

On Friday, besides the news conference, the governor will appear in a pre-recorded interview on “The Kelly File” on Fox News Channel.

Republicans beyond New Jersey remain uncertain about Christie’s ability to recover politically ahead of the 2016 presidential contest, but there were hints of a positive shift this week.

“It’s clearly been a good week for Chris Christie,” said Hogan Gidley, a veteran Republican political operative.

He cautioned that many Republicans are anxious to hear from the two Christie aides who were implicated in the report but not interviewed. The two, Kelly and Wildstein, also have been fighting legislative subpoenas.

The report nevertheless gives the governor some political cover to begin “focusing on any potential presidential run,” Gidley said.

On Saturday, Christie is set to appear at the Republican Jewish Coalition’s conference in Las Vegas, where he will speak publicly and privately to some of the GOP’s most influential national donors. Other prospective presidential candidates were also on the agenda, including former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush and Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, two Republican stars whose stock rose among the party’s top donors and operatives following Christie’s recent struggles.

There was little buzz among donors gathered in Las Vegas ahead of Christie’s weekend appearance, but some suggested that Christie had a major opportunity to revive his image amid skeptical donors. The unofficial host of the weekend gathering, major Republican donor Sheldon Adelson, has previously held a fundraiser for Christie and is openly seeking a new Republican presidential candidate to support in 2016.

At mid-week, Christie told listeners to his monthly radio call-in show that the scandal would not impact any future political plans, including a possible run for president in 2016. He repeated the assertion to Sawyer with an added flourish: “What’s happened in the past 10 weeks I think ultimately will make me a better leader,” he said, “whether it’s as governor of New Jersey or in any other job I might take in the public or private sector.”

(Copyright 2014 by The Associated Press.  All Rights Reserved.)

 

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