MENDHAM, N.J. March 27, 2014 -- Gov. Chris Christie insisted today in an exclusive interview with ABC News anchor Diane Sawyer that he "did nothing to create the environment" that prompted some of his former top aides to cause a traffic nightmare on the George Washington Bridge to punish the mayor of Fort Lee, N.J.
Christie spoke with Sawyer at his home in Mendham, N.J., hours after a report was released today by a law firm hired by the Christie administration to conduct an internal probe of the September bridge scandal. The report cleared Christie of any involvement in or knowledge of the traffic fiasco.
Christie said he is “relieved” to have the facts. He rejected any suggestion that the outside law firm that was appointed by his office would "whitewash" its findings to protect him.
"These people have their own professional and personal reputations," he said. "Six of them were former federal prosecutors. They're not going to whitewash anything for me and put their reputations at stake."
The Republican governor, who is frequently cited as a potential presidential candidate in 2016, said the uproar over the bridge havoc caused political and personal "soul-searching." He maintained, however, that he believes he remains a viable candidate in 2016, should he choose to run for president.
"I spent a lot of time in the last 11 weeks thinking about what did I do, if anything, to contribute to this," Christie said.
The governor is routinely described as blunt and has regularly come under criticism for what some say is a bullying style when it comes to critics and political opponents. But he denied that his personal style created an atmosphere that encouraged political bullying by his staff.
"I don’t think anyone would take that as an indication to do something so incredibly stupid," he said.
At another point, he said to Sawyer: "You asked if I contributed to a climate, and I don’t believe that I did."
The governor said he was baffled by the motivation for shutting down access to key lanes to the busiest bridge in the country.
"It defies credulity to me. Which is why when things were first reported, I said, 'This can't possibly be true.' Because who would do something like that? Sometimes, people do inexplicably stupid things," he said.
Moments later Christie added, "I can't get into what their motivations were, except to say that anybody who really knows me would not believe that doing something inexplicably stupid would please me."
The two people implicated in the bridge scandal so far include Christie's former deputy chief of staff, Bridget Anne Kelly, and David Wildstein, a Christie appointee to the agency that runs the George Washington Bridge and other transit links between New Jersey and New York. Both have been fired. Christie has also sacked former campaign manager Bill Stepien, and Wildstein’s boss at the Port Authority, Bill Baroni, who were both criticized for lying in the attorneys’ report released today.
At another point Christie repeated his belief that his blunt style of politics did not give his aides license to carry out a punishing political prank.
"This is not something that I think I inspired, and to the extent that any of them thought that this was acceptable conduct, then I fell short," he said.
The governor also said that he does not believe the bridge affair was even done on his behalf.
"I don’t believe it was for me," he said.
The internal report released today rejected the earlier public speculation that the Democratic mayor of Fort Lee was targeted because he declined to endorse Christie in his reelection campaign. Instead, the motive for the traffic jam was some unexplained “ulterior motive” and “animosity” toward the mayor of Fort Lee by Kelly and Wildstein, the report concluded.
The report also said Wildstein told Christie about the traffic crisis in Fort Lee as it was still going on, during a 9/11 memorial event in Manhattan. Seizing on that entry and the fact that it potentially undercuts Christie’s own explanations about when he learned about the lane shutdown, Sawyer challenged the governor.
“I don't have any recollection of that,” Christie replied. “David was one of hundreds of people that I spoke to that day. We stood around and spoke briefly that day. I don't have any recollection of him saying anything. But I'll tell you this. I'll tell you what he didn't say. He didn't say, ‘Hey, by the way governor, I'm closing down some lanes of the George Washington Bridge to stick it to the mayor. Is that OK?’ That I'd remember.”
Reflecting on the last two months, which he termed the worst episode in his professional life, Christie said he searched his soul and the experience brought him back to his home and family.
"Right after it happened, our oldest son was home on break, and he asked me, ‘Did you do this?’" the governor said. "It was a tough question that your son would ask you. And I said, ‘No, I didn’t.’ And he said, ‘Good, I’m glad.’
“It’s brought me closer to my family, it’s brought me to re-evaluate some of the way I spend my time,” Christie said. “I think you can get caught up in this world and in this life so easily… I’m spending a lot more time at home than I ever have … where it’s taken me is that my responsibilities here are important too.”
Christie acknowledged that the last two months have been the hardest time of his professional life as the bridge scandal overtook public discussion about him and his administration.
Though the last weeks have been trying, Christie told Sawyer he never considered stepping down.
“I’m not a quitter,” he said. “You don’t do that. Certainly, from my perspective, position, I knew I hadn’t done anything wrong, so there is no reason for me to leave. In fact there is even more of a reason for me to stay, to fix it. That’s who I am — someone who has to fix things. Make them better. So, for me it was even more of an incentive not to go.”
Christie has made limited public appearances since the scandal first erupted and has refused almost every opportunity to volley with the press. His interview today is expected to mark the start of a new chapter at the beginning of Christie’s second term in office. The governor is scheduled to meet reporters for a full news conference at his Statehouse office Friday.
He told Sawyer that he is likely to enact a series of recommendations made by his attorneys, including the appointment of a chief ethics officer in the governor’s office who would train staff and monitor their conduct.