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LEGAL VIEW WITH ASHLEIGH BANFIELD

Christie Holds Press Conference

Aired January 9, 2014 - 11:00   ET

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


JAKE TAPPER, CNN ANCHOR: Here with me in Washington are Wolf Blitzer and chief political analyst Gloria Borger.

John, let's start with you. What's the atmosphere there on the new -- oh, I'm sorry, John King is not available.

Let's go to Wolf Blitzer. Would do you -- if you were a political advisor to Governor Christie what would you tell him to say?

WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR, "THE SITUATION ROOM": I would say, Get all the bad news out and say it yourself. Don't let your enemies put it out. Don't let investigators, law enforcement, political hacks, if you will, don't let them bring out.

If you know there's bad stuff that was done by some of your top aides, as loyal as you feel to them, you have to come out right now and you have to say, here's what I know.

This is what happened. It's awful. I take responsibility. They worked for me. They didn't do the right thing. Maybe they thought this is what I wanted. I didn't want this to happen.

I feel awful about it. We're going to work and try to fix this, make sure it never happens again. We're going to learn from these lessons.

But if there is bad news that there was a cover-up, for example, of the decision to close these traffic lanes on the George Washington Bridge, he's got to bring that out.

Let him do the worst of it. I think that's the best advice I could give him.

GLORIA BORGER, CNN CHIEF POLITICAL ANALYST: One of the reasons we probably didn't hear from Christie yesterday and we got that short statement from him in which he said he was mislead, but really didn't accept for it -

TAPPER: Right.

BORGER: -- is because he was meeting, probably, I would assume, with lawyers, with the staff that he can talk to as opposed to the staff that may have some legal issues here and trying to figure out the answers to the questions that Wolf was just talking about.

One thing he's got to do is explain to people. If he did not know about this, why didn't he know since this was a huge topic of conversation on September 9 and September 10 in his own state? One would also assume across the bridge in New York.

Why he didn't get to the bottom of it then? And if he did, and a couple of people have since retired, was he trying to cover it up with their retirement, or did he actually know there was more to this story as has since unraveled?

And he has to try and get the trust back of the public that just, after all, re-elected him and tell them that this is not something I approve of, even though people in my office were clearly doing it, thinking that I would have approved of it.

Again, it's the culture question that needs -- that really needs some addressing here because it goes to his brand of politics.

TAPPER: We talk a lot about the different e-mails and text messages --

BORGER: Right.

TAPPER: -- the one from his deputy chief of staff saying, "Time for some traffic problems in Fort Lee," a few weeks before.

The callous response from his appointee to the Port Authority about the children that were stuck in traffic, when the mayor of Fort Lee was calling and trying to get help and they were not returning his calls.

But here's something that we haven't focused on a lot, which is, September 18, David Wildstein, the first person to resign in this scandal, the high school friend of Christie's who was appointed to the Port Authority, forwards a story from "The Wall Street Journal" about the bridge scandal, forwards it to Christie's campaign manager, Bill Stepien.

And Bill Stepien says it's fine; the mayor is "an idiot," though. And then Wildstein says, I had empty boxes ready to take to work today just in case.

BORGER: Right.

TAPPER: I had empty boxes. He is already, in September, talking about maybe being forced to resign.

BORGER: Right. Well, he packed them up, didn't he?

TAPPER: He did a few months later, a few months later when it came public.

BLITZER: I had the chance to talk to the mayor of Fort Lee, Mark Sokolich. He is not an idiot. He's a very intelligent guy, very smart guy. He feels awful about this, because a lot of his community was directly impacted by this decision to cause three days of traffic hell.

TAPPER: It hurt them more than it hurt the mayor.

John King is on the phone right now. John, I'm glad we got through to you. What's the mood in Trenton? And how many members of the media are there?

JOHN KING, CNN CHIEF NATIONAL CORRESPONDENT (via telephone): Jake, it's a packed room, political reporters, New Jersey reporters, national reporters, photographers.

We're told the governor will be out any minute. He's running a little late because it took so long us all packed into this small, little press room at the governor's office here in Trenton.

And what's the mood? There's a great sense of anticipation as to the questions you guys have been talking about. What will the governor say? How many people will be fired?

How will he explain that a handful or more of his most trusted aides, according to his version of events, essentially lied to him?

He said in December that he went to his people and said, Do we know anything about this? They said no, that they had no involvement.

So there will be questions about -- forgive the question -- the old "what did he know and when did he know it?"

And if he had no personal involvement, then what kind of a leadership and management culture did he have that people in such trusted position thought this was the thing they should do?

And then, when it became a big controversy, didn't come straight to the governor and spell out their roles and help him deal with this earlier?

As you all know, I've been discussing this morning, there's the offense if you will, why did they do this? And then there's the whole "it's always the cover-up or the effort to bury it" that gets you in more trouble.

So, a big test for the governor. He's just beginning his second term. He came out of a huge landslide win.

He wants to have a record of achievement here in that term so that he can campaign across the country in 2014 to help other Republicans and in 2016 as a potential candidate for the nomination.

And that he knows he's got a crisis on his hands, and what he says in the next few minutes is critical to his future.

TAPPER: Hey, John, we actually can see you. The camera is right on you. If you want to look behind you to the left, you can do this broadcast not just by phone, because we're ...

KING (via telephone): (Inaudible) so, technically, I can't stand up because the governor is going to walk in, we're told, in one minute, Jake.

TAPPER: Oh, I appreciate that, always a biding by the rules, John King. One thing I want to ask you, though, John, the idea of his management style, Governor Christie went to his aides when this became more of a story in December.

And they said, Oh, no, this was just a traffic study. It was just a traffic study.

And then he said in his press conference, I believe it was on December 13th, I know because it was the same day as the Arapahoe High School shooting, because we were going to do a story on this, but we ended up not because of the school shooting.

But he said, All I can tell you I asked Bill Baroni, one of his other aides at the Port Authority, and this was a traffic study, and that's all it is, Bill Baroni, who left office in December, as well, would be one of the aides who misled him, presumably, according to what the governor said.

Who else do we think misled the governor? And how many can he be misled by before there are questions about his leadership?

All right. It looks like they made John King hang up. This is the perils of live television.

But, Gloria, this is a big serious question --

BORGER: It is.

TAPPER: -- about the people he has around him.

BORGER: Right. And these are people who are close to him. These are not people sort of down the food chain.

These are people -

TAPPER: Yeah, deputy chief of staff, campaign manager -

BORGER: Deputy chief of staff, his campaign manager, people he trusted, people in high positions, people he promoted, people who worked with him closely everyday during the campaign, they let him go out there, if he did not know, and say things that made him now look foolish.

And if you're the governor of New Jersey just re-elected and want to become president of the United States --

TAPPER: Gloria, I'm going to cut you off.

Here's Governor Christie.

GOV. CHRIS CHRISTIE, NEW JERSEY: Good morning.

I come out here to this office where I've been many times before, and I come out here today to apologize to the people of New Jersey. I apologize to the people of Fort Lee, and I apologize to the members of the state legislature. I am embarrassed and humiliated by the conduct of some of the people on my team. There's no doubt in my mind that the conduct that they exhibited is completely unacceptable and showed a lack of respect for their appropriate role of government and for the people that we're trusted to serve.

Two pieces to what I want to talk about today. The first is, I believe that all the people who were affected by this conduct deserve this apology, and that's why I'm giving it to them. I also need to apologize to them for my failure as the governor of this state to understand the true nature of this problem sooner than I did. But I believe I have an understanding now of the true nature of the problem, and I've taken the following action as a result.

This morning I terminated the employment of Bridget Kelly effective immediately. I terminated her employment because she lied to me. I brought my senior staff together about four weeks ago tomorrow, and I put to all of them one simple challenge. If there is any information that you know about the decision to close these lanes in Fort Lee, you have one hour to tell either my chief of staff, Kevin O'Dowd or my chief council, Charlie McKenna.

I told them that in an hour I was going to go out in the press conference, and if no one gave me other information to the contrary, I was going to say that no one on my staff was involved in this matter.

Over the course of the next hour, Kevin and Charlie interviewed each member of my senior staff, came back and reported to me they all reported there was no information other than what we already knew that had been testified to by Senator Baroni, regarding this incident.

I then questioned Kevin O'Dowd and Charlie McKenna directly, since they are the only two who report directly to me, and they assured me that they had no information that would change my ability to be able to say that no one, in response to Angie's question, on my staff was involved in this matter.

That was obviously a lie. And the e-mails that I saw for the first time yesterday morning when they were broken in I believe "The Bergen Record" story, proved that was a lie.

There's no justification for that behavior. There's no justification for ever lying to a governor or a person in authority in this government. As a result, I've terminated Bridget's employment immediately this morning.

Secondly, I have and will continue to, started yesterday, to once again now have personal one-on-one discussions myself with the remaining members of my senior staff to determine if there's any other information that I do not know and need to know in order to take appropriate action. I'm not completed with those interviews yet, but when I am, if there is additional information that needs to be disclosed, I will do so. If there's additional actions that need to be taken with my senior staff, I will do so. I will tell you though, it's been written a lot over the last couple of days about what a tight knit staff I have, and how closely everyone works together, and that is true. And ever since the time I was U.S. attorney, I've engendered the sense and feeling among the people closest to me that we're a family, and we work together, and we tell each other the truth, and we support each other when we need to be supported, and we admonish each other when we need to be admonished.

I am heartbroken that someone who I permitted to be in that circle of trust for the last five years betrayed my trust. I would never have come out here four or five weeks ago and made a joke about these lane closures had I ever had an inkling that anyone on my staff would have been so stupid but to be involved, and then so deceitful as to dis - just to not disclose the information of their involvement to me when directly asked by their superior.

Those questions were not asked, by the way, just once. They were asked repeatedly.

So I take this action today because it's my job. I am responsible for what happened. I am sad to report to the people of New Jersey that we fell short. We fell short of the expectations that we've created over the last four years for the type of excellence in government that they should expect from this office.

But I have repeatedly said to them that while I promised them the best governor's office I could give them, I could never promise a perfect governor's office. So when I find those imperfections, those mistakes, those lies, my obligation as chief executive of this state is to act. And as to Bridget Kelly, I've acted today.

Secondly, I was disturbed by the tone, and behavior, and attitude of callus indifference that was displayed in the e-mails by my former campaign manager, Bill Stepien. And reading that, it made me lose my confidence in Bill's judgment. And you cannot have someone at the top of your political operation who you do not have confidence in.

As a result, I've instructed Bill Stepien to not place his name in nomination for state party chairman, and he will not be considered for state party chairman. And I've instructed him to withdraw his consultantcy with the Republican Governor Association. 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 because of the lack of judgment that was shown in the e-mails that were revealed yesterday. That has also been communicated to Mr. Stepien last night.

There's to doubt that Bill has been one of my closest advisors over the last five years. And so, for that too, I am sad today to have to take this action, but I also know that I have a job to do, and it's the job that I've asked people of New Jersey to entrust me with, and I can never allow personal feelings or long-standing relationships to get in the way of doing my job the way it's appropriate to do it.

But I don't want any of you to confuse what I'm saying this morning. Ultimately, I am responsible for what happens under my watch, the good and the bad, and 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.

As I mentioned to you earlier, I spent all day yesterday digging in to talking to folks and getting to the bottom of things. I know there was much discussion yesterday about what was I doing. Well, let me tell everybody, I was blindsided yesterday morning.

I was done with my workout yesterday morning and got a call from my communication director at about 8:50-8:55 informing me of the story that had just broken on "The Bergen Record" website. That was the first time I knew about this, it was the first time I had seen any of the documents that were revealed yesterday.

And so before I came out and spoke to all of you, I wanted to do the best I could to try to get to the bottom on some of this, so that when I came out I could answer questions as best I can, and take appropriate action if action was necessary. There's no doubt from reading those e-mails yesterday, in my mind, that action was necessary.

And then I wanted to make sure that I spoke to those people who advised me to make sure if there was any other information they were aware of, that I had it before I acted.

I'm going to continue this process. I couldn't get it all done yesterday. As I said, if there's more information I uncover, I'll act accordingly in terms of releasing it to the public and taking whatever action may be necessary, if any is, for any other issues, and also will react to any information that incoming from anyplace else, given that there's an OIG investigation and a legislative investigation.

Later today, I'm going to be going to be going to Fort Lee. I've asked to meet with the mayor and apologize to him personally face to face and also to apologize to the people of Fort Lee in their town. I think they need to see me do that personally, and I intend to do that later on today.

People of those communities for four days were impacted in a completely callus and indifferent way, and I'm going to go and apologize for that.

Let me conclude with this. This is not the tone that I've set over the last four years in this building. It's not the environment I've worked so hard to achieve. We saw just a few months ago, and I've seen over the course of the last four years, Republicans and Democrats working together, not without argument -- government is never without argument, but ultimately coming to resolution on so many different issues in a bipartisan way, and running a campaign what was in fact a bipartisan campaign.

And so, I am extraordinarily disappointed by this. But this is the exception. It is not the rule of what's happened over the last four years in the administration. I've considered it over the last four years to be my job to be the governor of every New Jersian - Republicam Democrat, Independent, or unaffiliated.

And I've worked with elected officials on both side of the aisle, ones that I agree with and ones that I disagree with. The political overtones that were exhibited in those documents released yesterday and the conduct by those people is not acceptable, but people, I think, all across the state understand that human beings are not perfect, and mistakes are made.

And I believe what they expect of me as the chief executive of this state is when that information comes into my possession that I consider it and then act as swiftly as possible to remediate whatever ill occurred. That's what I've done today. Actions have consequences. I'm living up to that right now.

And I'll say one last thing just so we're really clear: 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 regardless of what the facts ultimately uncover.

This was handled in a callus and indifferent way, and it's not the way the administration has conducted itself over the last four years, and not the way it will conduct itself over the next four. I will do everything within my power to assure the people of New Jersey that and I thank them for their willingness to consider my apology on behalf of this government.

In the end, I have 65,000 people working for me everyday. I cannot know what each one of them is doing at every minute, but that doesn't matter. I'm ultimately responsible for what they do. That's why I took this action.

David.

QUESTION: Governor, beyond the apology and terminations that you've announced, what other steps, concrete steps, do you plan to take to (ph) demonstrate to (ph) the (ph) people of New Jersey, and the people of the country that you wan to change the perception of what has happened here, and will that include working cooperatively with these investigations that are now moving forward? Because, in the past you had some rather nasty words for the people who are heading them up.

CHRISTIE: Yeah, well, and I apologized for that this morning, David, because I was being lead to believe, by folks around me, that there was no basis to this. And so, you know -- and let's be fair, there have been times when there have been investigations around here that have led to nothing, and have had no basis.

But I was wrong. And so now, having been proven wrong, of course we'll work cooperatively with the investigations, and I'm going through an examination as I mentioned to you right now. That's what I'm doing.

I'm going through examination and talking to the individual people who work for me, not only to discover if there's other information we need to find, but also to ask them how did this happen? How did this occur to us?

I think -- listen, as I said before, I've had a tight knit group of people who I trust implicitly. I had no reason to believe they weren't telling me the truth. It is heartbreaking to me that I wasn't told the truth. I'm a very loyal guy, and I expect loyalty in return, and lying to me is not an exhibition of loyalty.

So, you know, I'm going to look into this personally. It's my responsibility, David. And so what steps we take after that, if there are concrete steps beyond what I've done today, then we'll certainly announce them and talk about them. If not, then I'll just say listen, I think we've gotten to the bottom of this and we're going to move forward with a new team. And you know, I have a new team coming in as well who I'm trying to integrate now also in the next two weeks. So, there'll be a lot of action going on around here. Kelly?

QUESTION: (INAUDIBLE)

CHRISTIE: No, I'm not. Listen, Kelly, politics ain't beanbag. Okay, and everybody in the country who engages in politics knows that. On the other hand, that's very, very different than saying that you know, someone's a bully. I have very heated discussions and arguments with people in my own party and on the other side of the aisle, I feel passionately about issues, and I don't hide my emotions from people. I am not a focus group-tested blow-dried candidate or governor.

Now, that has always made some people, as you know, uneasy. Some people like that style, some don't. I've always said -- I think you asked me a question a day after the election, are you willing to change your style in order to appeal to a broader audience? And I think I said no because I am who I am, but I am not a bully.

What I will tell you is that the folks who have worked with me over a long period of time would, I believe, tell you that I'm tough, but I've shown over the last four years in the tone that we've set here that I'm willing to compromise, that I'm willing to work with others, and the campaign showed with all of the folks that came from the other side of the aisle to support us that if we weren't willing to have relationships with those folks it would have never happened that way.

So, I don't believe that Kelly, and I don't believe the body of work in the last four years displays that. Now, in this instance, the language used and conduct displayed in those e-mails is unacceptable to me, and I will not tolerate it.

But the best I can do is when I see stuff like that, to end it. And I know that won't satisfy everybody, but I'm not in the business of satisfying everybody. I'm in the business of trying to satisfy the people who elected me governor.

Michael.

Michael.

Michael.

QUESTION: You stated you're going to individually interview all members of the governor's office --

CHRISTIE: The senior staff, yes. QUESTION: (INAUDIBLE) about the campaign, are you going to personally interview?

CHRISTIE: Well, many -

QUESTION: (INAUDIBLE) above Bill Stepien in the campaign?

CHRISTIE: There was no one above Bill Stepien in the campaign. He was the campaign manager. There was no one above Bill Stepien in the campaign.

QUESTION: (INAUDIBLE) other officials, some of them are quite close to you.

CHRISTIE: Yeah, but, Michael, their role in the campaign was not the day-to-day operation of the campaign. Bill Palatucci was the chairman of the campaign and he was essentially involved in fundraising. That was Bill's main task. Mike DuHaime was the general consultant. He dealt with TV ads and mail pieces. So, the day-to-day operation of the campaign --

QUESTION: (INAUDIBLE) that they didn't know about?

CHRISTIE: Yes. I've spoken to both of them. They were two of my discussions yesterday.

Angie. Angie. Angie. Guys, we don't work that way.

QUESTION: How confident are you that this tactic (ph), this bullying tactic was revenge retribution tactic did not go up beyond this, or are you?

CHRISTIE: Well listen, Angie, I'm not going to -- I'm smart enough now after this experience not go out there and certify that unequivocally., okay? I don't have any evidence before me as we speak that it went beyond this incident, but I can't tell you that I know that for sure as to every aspect of everything. Now I have to be much more circumspect about that.

Prior to yesterday, I believed that if I looked someone in the eye that I worked with and trusted and asked them that I would get an honest answer. Maybe that was naive, but that's what I believed. Now I'm going in digging and asking more questions, but I can't make a warranty on that, Angie. I don't believe so, but I can't make a warranty on that, and I won't because when I did that four weeks ago and ended up being wrong. You can follow up.

(CROSSTALK)

QUESTION: Governor you can tell us that (INAUDIBLE) you did not authorize -

CHRISTIE: Abs --Absolutely not. No, and I knew nothing about this, and until it started to be reported in the papers about the closure. But even then, I was told this was a traffic study. Senator Baroni testified that it was a traffic study. There still may have been a traffic study that now has political overtones to it as well. I don't know the answer to that, Angie. I think that we're going to find out, but I don't know because Senator Baroni presented all types of information that day to the legislature - statistics and maps and otherwise, that seemed to evidence a traffic study. So, why would I believe that anybody would not be telling the truth about that? I said that, I think, at the time.

(CROSSTALK)

CHRISTIE: I'm not finished yet, guys. But the fact is that regardless of all that, you know, it's clear now that in the minds of some people there were political overtones or political side deals on this. And that's unacceptable. So, whether there was a traffic study or not, I don't know. It appeared that there was one based on what I saw in the testimony, but regardless of whether there was or wasn't, there clearly were also political overtones that were evidenced in that - in those e-mails and other messages that were never ever brought to my attention until yesterday. Yeah?