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THE LEAD WITH JAKE TAPPER

Chris Christie Apologizes; Dennis Rodman's Mea Culpa; Interview with Former New Jersey Governor Tom Kean

Aired January 9, 2014 - 16:00   ET

THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.


JAKE TAPPER, CNN ANCHOR: New Jersey Governor and presidential hopeful Chris Christie tries to steer into the skid in his bridge scandal, apologizing more times in his 108-minute news conference than he probably has his whole political career.

I'm Jake Tapper. This is THE LEAD.

The politics lead. He said he's sad, embarrassed, humiliated, but not a bully. Governor Christie apologizing, but denying he knew anything about a plot in his inner circle to orchestrate an epic traffic jam out of political spite. Do the people of New Jersey buy it? What about voters nationwide, ones that Christie may try to court in 2016?

The world lead. What a day for mea culpas. Dennis Rodman saying he's sorry for losing it during that CNN interview seen around the world. See,, everybody, it's OK, he was just drunk.

And the pop culture lead. Sure, they paint their faces and are known to get plenty rowdy, but are fans of the critically reviled Insane Clown Posse really a gang, like the FBI claims? Isn't this America, where you're free to like any kind of terrible music you want?

Good afternoon, everyone. We begin today of course with the politics lead. New Jersey Governor Chris Christie expected any minute now in Fort Lee, New Jersey, to offer his apologies to the community and the mayor in person after doing it on their TVs earlier in the day.

It would not be an exaggeration to call this the most crucial day in Chris Christie's political career, especially if the Republican plans to run for president in 2016. The governor emerging a day after the country got a look at text messages and e-mails that appear to tie one of his top aide and a Christie-appointed Port Authority official to a schemed that provoked a massive traffic jam in September on the Fort Lee side of the George Washington Bridge, which may have been retaliation against a Democratic mayor who did not endorse Christie.

Now, we have seen victorious Christie. We have seen jovial Christie and we have seen candid Christie we have seen agitated Christie. Now meet this new guy, humbled Christie.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

GOV. CHRIS CHRISTIE (R), NEW JERSEY: I have come out here today to apologize. I apologize. I apologize. This apology. My apology.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

TAPPER: One hundred and eight minutes. The news conference seemed to go on longer than "The Wolf of Wall Street."

The governor pulling a rope-a-dope, letting reporters burn themselves out on questions. I was half expecting the whole thing to end with Journey playing in the background and a quick cut to black in a diner. Christie, while admitting his style is blunt, denied today being a vindictive man.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

CHRISTIE: I am who I am. But I am not a bully. I have a very direct, blunt personality. And I understand why some people would then characterize that, especially people who don't like you, as bullying.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

TAPPER: Now, before the e-mails and texts came out, the governor denied any involvement by his office in his traffic jam, blaming the bridge woes on what turned out to be a phantom traffic study, one that even the governor says he has not seen.

But then yesterday morning came news of e-mails and texts that seemed to bolster the notion that this was all a callous, cold, political retribution.

"Time for some traffic problems in Fort Lee," wrote his deputy chief of staff Bridget Anne Kelly. David Wildstein, that Port Authority official appointed by Christie, texted that it wasn't wrong to smile at the notion of kids stuck in hours of traffic on their way to school because -- quote -- "They are the children of Democratic voters."

"The mayor of Fort Lee is an idiot," e-mailed Christie's campaign manager, Bill Stepien. Confronted with these, Christie today was chastened.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

TAPPER (voice-over): Famously blunt but caught flat-footed by scandal, Governor Chris Christie finally entered the fray himself this morning apologetic and, he said, heartbroken.

CHRISTIE: I am embarrassed and humiliated by the conduct of some of the people on my team.

TAPPER: Echoing the words of yesterday's written statement, Christie asserted his ignorance of the e-mails and text messages that showed some of his top staffers conspiring to shut down the George Washington Bridge in an act of political payback.

CHRISTIE: I had no knowledge or involvement in this issue, in its planning or its execution. And I am stunned by the abject stupidity that was shown here. TAPPER: He said heads have already rolled, including his deputy chief of staff, Bridget Anne Kelly, whose name is all over the e-mail and text message chain.

CHRISTIE: I have terminated the employment of Bridget Kelly effective immediately. She was not given an opportunity to explain to me why she lied, because it was so obvious that she had.

TAPPER: Two-time Christie campaign manager Bill Stepien was also fired less than a week being after being nominated by the governor to be the next Republican chairman for the state.

CHRISTIE: If I cannot trust someone's judgment, I cannot ask others to do so and I would not place him at the head of my political operation.

TAPPER: It remains unclear if Christie's press conference today, 108 minutes long, can remove the stain of yesterday's explosive release of e-mails and text messages just two months after he won a second term in a landslide victory.

CHRISTIE: When they walked into the voting booth today, they didn't say, hey, I wonder who this guy is and what he stands for, what he's willing to fight for, what he's willing to do when the chips are down.

TAPPER: The scandal hits at heart of Christie's carefully honed image as a straight-talking, no-nonsense governor interested in bipartisanship and efficiency.

The one-time U.S. attorney for specialized in cases of political corruption is now facing the possibility of an investigation into his administration by the U.S. attorney of New Jersey. Christie said he hoped to meet with the mayor of Fort Lee, the apparent target of the political vendetta, and he pledged to visit with the residents of the town and personally apologize to the commuters affected by the traffic jam.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I don't believe him. Can you imagine this guy on foreign policy?

TAPPER: But the mayor said he wasn't so sure that was a good idea.

MARK SOKOLICH (D), MAYOR OF FORT LEE, NEW JERSEY: It's just going to cause more chaos in Fort Lee. We don't need it at this point.

And I have got to tell you, I think you ought to wait for this investigation to conclude. Otherwise, we're going to be spending a lot of gas coming up and down the turnpike.

TAPPER: When we spoke to Christie last Election Day, we talked about apologies in the context of President Obama's broken promise that if you like your health plan, you can keep your health plan.

CHRISTIE: Here's what my suggestion would be to him. Don't be so cute. And when you make a mistake, admit it, say, you know what? I said it. I was wrong. I'm sorry. And we're going to try to fix this and make it better.

TAPPER: Today, it sounded as if he was taking his own advice.

CHRISTIE: When mistakes are made, then I have to own up to them and take the action that I believe is necessary in order to remediate them.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

TAPPER: And joining me now to discuss the implications of this all, reporter for WNYC and New Jersey Public Radio Matt Katz, Washington correspondent for "The New Yorker" and CNN political commentator Ryan Lizza, and national political reporter for "The Atlantic" Molly Ball.

Good to see all of you.

Matt, I'm going to start with you.

We saw a very contrite Chris Christie today, very different from the one who mocked your question when you asked about this weeks ago and he made the joke about putting cones out in the lanes. Do you think that this is going to be a less blunt and less confrontational Christie we see in the future because of this controversy or this is just a one-off today?

MATT KATZ, WNYC REPORTER: Absolutely not. He's not going to change the way he speaks.

This has happened on a much smaller scale in the past, where he misspeaks or he says something he shouldn't have said, and then he's forced to have a press conference where he's a little bit contrite. And then he just goes back to the very blunt, offensive to some people way he always is.

This was, though, on a much grander scale. He took questions for two hours. It was absolutely extraordinary.

(CROSSTALK)

TAPPER: Just to interrupt for one second, people are looking at live pictures of Chris Christie in Fort Lee, New Jersey. I just want to make sure people know that they're doing that.

Yes, almost two hours of questions was extraordinary. Has he ever done anything that long before, Matt?

KATZ: No. This was the longest press conference of his career. And I'm told by senior statehouse reporters that it was the longest press conference in decades in this building.

He took every question in the room. And he's done that before when he's faced a little bit of controversy. He takes every question, and he doesn't yell at anybody. He didn't yell at a single reporter today. He didn't get mad when a reporter asked a question that had just been asked. And that's the way he handles crises. And he's going to hope that he did enough today. And then we will see in a week or two weeks or a month or two the same old Chris Christie.

TAPPER: Ryan, Republican political consultant Mike Murphy tweeted about the marathon talk session today, writing: "Christie presser is a microcosm of strength and weakness of his style. Very strong start, then a troubling excess of the first person singular."

Ryan, what was your take? Do you think that the governor was focused too much on the betrayal to him, as opposed to the citizens of New Jersey and the EMS technicians and the kids on the school buses or do you think he struck the right balance? What was your take?

RYAN LIZZA, CNN CONTRIBUTOR: Yes, I think that's a fair criticism. He certainly had some very contrite moments that you could pluck out and string together a long video of him just saying he was sorry.

But there was this thread throughout the two hours of he was betrayed. His staff -- he was angry about what happened to him and he lost the sort of emphasis on the people at Fort Lee who suffered through this week of traffic, and he really did not seem eager to talk about the most dramatic part of this whole story, which is this 91-year-old woman who died after EMS couldn't get to her in time.

We don't know obviously if that's why she died, but a pretty much dramatic part of the story. When he was asked about that, he did not seem eager to dwell on it.

What's happening right now in that -- in City Hall, Jake, I think is just -- I would love to be inside there. We had this mayor who didn't want Christie to come, and Christie said, I'm coming, and the mayor relented and it looks like they are about to meet face-to-face over there in Fort Lee.

TAPPER: Molly, to say Christie's press conference went on for a while is an understatement. It was one hour and 48 minutes. The McCain Keating Five press conference was less than that, 90 minutes. The Geraldine Ferraro family finances press conference was 90 minutes, less than that. Do you see this as a strategy by him, just take as many questions until there are not anymore? What did you make of that?

MOLLY BALL, "THE ATLANTIC": Absolutely. It was a remarkable event.

But that was the whole point, was that he wanted to show that he had taken all the questions. He couldn't be accused of ducking anything, of evading anything, of trying to skip out on any of the things people wanted to ask.

It seems like a bit of a low bar to me, but as Matt pointed out, he managed not to yell at anybody, which I guess is an accomplishment when you're Chris Christie. Look, this press conference sucked for Chris Christie. But that was the whole point. He's going to take all the crap now. He's going to all the pain now. He's going to have one really, really bad day and then, ideally, the best-case scenario for him is that this as bad as it gets, this is the worse that it gets for him.

TAPPER: Matt, Ryan, and Molly, stick around. We're going to come back to you.

But, first, coming up next on THE LEAD, he is not just sorry, but he's sad he was blindsided and he's taking care of those lied to him. But is that enough for Chris Christie? We're going to talk to one of the governor's mentor, former New Jersey Governor Tom Kean, coming up next.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

TAPPER: Welcome back to THE LEAD. I'm Jake Tapper.

Continuing with our politics lead, New Jersey Governor Chris Christie just arrived in Fort Lee, New Jersey, where he plans to personally apologize for those in his inner circle who apparently orchestrated a major traffic jam in the city out of political spite.

One of the now four people who have left their aftermath of the scandal, former Port Authority Director of Interstate Capital Projects David Wildstein, was forced, compelled to testify earlier today at a state committee hearing.

He unsuccessfully fought the subpoena, so, instead, he did this.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

CHRISTIE: I didn't read that that way at all. And that was...

(END VIDEO CLIP)

TAPPER: I'm sorry. That's the wrong clip. We were supposed to show a clip of him taking the Fifth.

The committee voted to hold Wildstein contempt for refusing to answer questions, which is a misdemeanor but so much for getting any more details today on what members of the governor's office knew this about, or whether there are more acts of political retribution.

I want to bring in former New Jersey Republican Governor Tom Kean. He's a political mentor to Chris Christie. And just last week, Christie said of Kean, "I have enormous respect and admiration for Governor Kean and I always will."

Governor Kean, good to see you always.

TOM KEAN (R), FORMER NEW JERSEY GOVERNOR: Thank you.

TAPPER: What did you make of today's press conference? Was it enough for the citizens of New Jersey?

KEAN: I thought it was everything he could do. I think he was definite. He was straight. He apologized. He said he cleaned up the mess in his office. And there were no weasel words. I mean, if you -- it wasn't like a lawyer's. You couldn't misinterpret. He was absolutely direct. I did not know anything about this.

And if that holds, and I suspect it will, then I think Chris Christie is going to emerge from this all right.

TAPPER: Now, he made clear to say that he didn't think he had that tone in his office, that there wasn't a tone of retribution. But I think it's a fair question that his deputy chief of staff and at least three others, including his campaign manager he appointed to be head of the state Republican Party, clearly were involved with this and they must have thought that this was OK.

Doesn't the governor -- even if he didn't know about this -- doesn't he bear some responsibility for the atmosphere? I can't imagine something like this. I should acknowledge I'm from across the river in Philadelphia and I remember when you were governor. I can't imagine something like this happening when you were governor.

KEAN: Well, look, the governor bears some responsibility and he took responsibility today. I don't know anything the governor could have done other than what he did today. Taking responsibility, saying he never knew about it, going to the people of Fort Lee to apologize.

Look, this is going to hang around. It's not going to -- you're not going to get away from it. This is going to be a bad mark on his record. But I think given who he is and given his native ability, he's the most -- by the way, he's the most able politician since Bill Clinton. Given all that ability, he's got a lot to give to the country and a lot to give to the state. And I suspect he's going to emerge from this and be able to do that.

TAPPER: He's fired his deputy chief of staff and his campaign manager from the state Republican Party. There were two others who left office from the Port Authority. Do you think that's enough?

KEAN: It is if that's the limit. What we know right now is that those were the people involved. We don't know of anybody else involved. And that's going to be the question, if it's only what Christie said today in his press conference, then, as I say, I think he will emerge from this all right.

But if there's other things come out, if we learn things that we weren't told, if his further involvement with his office or if this emerges as a pattern, then I think he's got real problems.

TAPPER: He's meeting with the mayor of Fort Lee and his constituents in that town right now. Do you think that's necessary? What should he be saying to them?

KEAN: I'm sorry -- that's what he should be saying. I mean, this was -- even if he knew nothing about it, it is his responsibility. He hired these people. They thought -- I assumed they must have thought they were doing what he wanted them to do, otherwise, they wouldn't have done it. But it's a crazy story. It really is. I've never -- I've been in politics for a long time, I've never seen a story that makes less sense than this one, from beginning to the end.

TAPPER: Well, that's the thing. I was talking about this with my wife. And she said, how does causing that traffic jam hurt the mayor of Fort Lee? And I didn't have an answer for her.

KEAN: No. And I don't know how it helps the Christie campaign. I mean, this is a guy with 25 points or more, with an opponent does not get any headway at all, and according to the press conference today, he doesn't even know this mayor and he never asked for his endorsement. So, how does somebody in the governor's office suddenly think, one, the mayor should have endorsed him, two, let's punish him for not doing it, and third, let's do it by closing lanes on the bridge? I mean , that makes no sense whatsoever to me. I don't understand the logic to it.

TAPPER: There is retribution obviously in politics, but -- and, obviously, sometimes it gets, you know, literally fatal. But I wonder what your reaction was when you read these text message and these emails in the press yesterday or heard about them on CNN -- the idea of don't worry about those kids, they are Buono voters -- meaning they're the kids of people who are voting for Christie's Democratic opponent -- time for a traffic jam in Fort Lee. I mean, very vindictive. The mayor is an idiot.

I know that politics ain't beanbag. But were you surprised by the callous indifference, to use the governor's term, with which the constituents of New Jersey were treated?

KEAN: I was surprised. More than that, I was appalled.

People just don't talk that way. I mean, it sound like -- first, it sounded juvenile, like kids. And secondly, the kind of indifference that they showed, it just -- I know, I read it and then I thought, what could these people be thinking? I mean, who are these people that talk and think this way? It made no sense.

TAPPER: Lastly, sir, how do you think this will impact Christie's political future in New Jersey and, of course, if he runs president?

KEAN: Christie is the most talented politician I know, other than maybe Bill Clinton. So if this is the end of it, if nobody else is involved, the kind of things that he said in the press conference today bear out, then I think he'll emerge and he'll again be a strong presidential contender. But if this -- if we let other things, if there are other people in the governor's office, if this becomes a pattern, then I think it's going to give him real problems.

TAPPER: Former Governor Tom Kean, thank you so much for your time. I really appreciate it.

KEAN: Thank you.

TAPPER: Coming up on THE LEAD, the traffic problems in New Jersey didn't just inconvenient some commuters. It held up some emergency vehicles. We have just gotten some reaction from one family member whose loved one needed help that day. That's coming up next.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

TAPPER: Welcome back to THE LEAD.

Some breaking news to report in our political lead, as Governor Chris Christie prepares to personally tell the people of Fort Lee, New Jersey, that he's sorry for the lane closures that his office apparently orchestrated in September, causing a massive traffic jam.

Among the many, many knocks Christie has taken for this, critics have seized on the story of 91-year-old Florence Genova, a Fort Lee woman who died on the first day of lane closures. Emergency vehicles had difficulty getting to her. But now, Genova's daughter is telling "The New York Times" that she does not blame the closures for keeping an ambulance from reaching her mother in time that morning. She tells "The New York Times" that, quote, "I honestly believe it was just her time."

I want to bring back our panel, reporter for WNYC and New Jersey Public Radio, Matt Katz, Washington correspondent for "The New Yorker" and CNN political commentator Ryan Lizza, and national political reporter for "The Atlantic", Molly Ball.

Matt, I'm going to start with you -- there is more than one mayor in New Jersey making hay over what's going on with Governor Chris Christie. In addition to the Fort Lee mayor, there's this Jersey City saying his not endorsing Christie also meant retaliation to him. Tell us about that. And do you think that has legs?

MATT KATZ, WNYC AND NEW JERSEY PUBLIC RADIO: That's right. Steve Fulop, the mayor of Jersey City, second biggest city in New Jersey, says that he came out with a statement today, detailing how within an hour of him telling Christie -- the Christie people that he would not endorse Christie for re-election, six meetings with six Christie cabinet members were suddenly canceled, within an hour. And he since had trouble meeting with and talking to officials about various issues dealing with the city.

Now, Christie was asked generally about this and he said that he has a good relationship with the mayor of Jersey City and everything's fine there. But I think what happened with Fort Lee, it might have emboldened some of Christie's detractors and you might see more politicians, mayors claim that Christie acting in a vengeful way, and that could stick around with Christie for a bit.

TAPPER: Ryan, lots talk about Tom Kean just now, the former governor of New Jersey. Now, I know he's a fellow Republican and I know that he was a mentor, to a degree, of Chris Christie. But there has been some bad blood between them. Recently, Christie was trying to apparently, reportedly, unseat Tom Kean Jr. from his leadership position in the state senate. So, it's not like they're best friends right now.

But he was -- he offered a very full-throated forceful defense of Chris Christie. Were you surprised about that?

RYAN LIZZA, THE NEW YORKER: Very full-throated. I mean, he went on to talk about Christy as a national politician and talk about his allude to him running for president -- he did not sound like someone who is going to be a critic. He did say one thing that jives with what Matt was just saying, and that is the cautioned that if this latest incident exposes is a pattern with Chris Christie, right? If we have other politicians come out and say, well, yes, I was retaliated against also. And this is how Chris Christie exercised power in New Jersey.

And, look, frankly, the story of Christie's rise to politics in New Jersey, which is not a -- you know, which is a complicated state. It has a lot of centers, and he sort of mastered the levers of that state. And that's always been written as a sort of a positive story, a guy who understands politics. If that is now recast as more Machiavellian story, with Christie playing people off one another and constantly retaliating, that's a danger for him even if he survives this -- the latest scandal.

TAPPER: Although, Molly, we probably -- I mean, we shouldn't make too much out of some retaliation. This is politics. It's not as though enemies of any politician you might name couldn't find some stories of politician X, politician Y canceling meetings after not getting what they wanted, scuttling legislation after not getting what they wanted. It's not that uncommon. That's what made this traffic jam story so bizarre.

MOLLY BALL, NATIONAL POLITICAL REPORTER, THE ATLANTIC: Well, I think people are willing to tolerate quite a bit of pettiness if they feel like it's coming in the service of getting things done. If the rap on Christie was that he was willing to knock heads together and trade favors to pass the state budget or to get the reforms that he wanted through the legislature, then that's one thing. But if it's a personal thing, if it's someone refusing to endorse him for re- election, if it seems like this is all about him and his ego and his personal politics, I think that's a different story.

TAPPER: Molly Ball, Ryan Lizza, Matt Katz, thank you so much, we really appreciate it. We'll see you soon.

National Democrats have predictably taken the governor to task, but he has not found much relief from his own parties, especially among conservatives. Take this tweet from Glenn Beck, giving the New Jersey governor the fake movie poster treatment with the #fatandfurious.