Prominent Republicans leapt to New Jersey Governor Chris Christie’s defense on Sunday, insisting that an ongoing traffic scandal would not ruin any presidential ambitions, while Democrats say it is difficult to believe such a hands-on manager knew nothing about a plan by a top aide to close lanes at a bridge into New York City.
Politicians from both sides of the aisle took to the Sunday television talk shows to debate the fallout from the traffic jams near the George Washington Bridge in September last year and any role Christie may have played.
Documents show Christie’s aides appeared to engineer lane closures at the heavily traveled bridge for political retribution.
Christie has been considered an early front-runner for the 2016 Republican presidential nomination after a landslide re-election victory in November last year in which he drew considerable support from traditional Democratic constituencies in New Jersey.
However, just two months later his political prospects have taken a hit as e-mails were made public implicating some of his top aides in the bridge traffic scandal.
Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Priebus told NBC’s Meet the Press that Christie could move past the scandal and still win support from primary voters in the 2016 presidential race.
He said Christie demonstrated leadership by holding a lengthy news conference on Thursday to apologize for the scandal, the most serious challenge to his political career, and to disavow any knowledge of its planning.
“America’s a forgiving people, but they’re forgiving when you take ownership, you admit mistakes, you take corrective action, and that’s what Chris Christie showed,” Priebus said.
Christie said he was “embarrassed and humiliated” by the conduct of some of his staff, including top aide Bridget Anne Kelly, whom he fired after learning she gave the go-ahead to close several lanes approaching the bridge.
Christie said he was “blindsided” by the revelations, which he said he discovered when subpoenaed e-mails were released last week.
Assemblyman John Wisniewski, a New Jersey Democrat leading the legislative investigation into the traffic jams, told CBS’ Face the Nation there’s no evidence Christie was directly involved in the traffic tie-up.
However, he said the governor did not have to know about the lane closures for them to be a crime.
“When you use the George Washington Bridge for what the e-mails show to be a political payback, that amounts to using public property for a private purpose or for a political purpose, and that’s not legal,” Wisniewski said.
Former New York City mayor Rudy Giuliani, a Republican, said on ABC’s This Week that he found Christie’s explanation “pretty darn credible” that he did not know what members of his inner circle were up to while he was running for re-election.
Fort Lee Mayor Mark Sokolich, whose town was clogged with traffic, said he wanted to believe Christie’s staffers acted without his knowledge, but was having a tough time buying it.
“Anything his name was even remotely involved in, he was involved in,” said Sokolich, who met with Christie on Thursday, when the governor traveled to Fort Lee to apologize personally.
The traffic delayed emergency vehicles and school buses and infuriated commuters in his town.
Sokolich, who had initially urged the governor to stay away, said afterward that the meeting was productive.