Republican Gov. Chris Christie has spent the past few days putting down traffic cones to separate himself from scandal.
The usually garrulous governor and possible 2016 presidential contender had avoided news conferences and interviews for more than two months until Thursday, the day a report he commissioned cleared him of any involvement in the politically motivated plot to create huge traffic jams at the George Washington Bridge last year.
With investigations by federal prosecutors and state lawmakers looming, Christie also submitted to two nationally broadcast interviews on Thursday.
And a vintage, defiant Christie re-emerged Friday at a Statehouse news conference in which he cracked jokes, jousted with reporters and acknowledged the toll of the scrutiny.
“There is no question this shakes your confidence,” he said. “If it doesn’t, you’re arrogant.”
Christie defended the integrity of the taxpayer-funded report clearing him. It was produced by lawyers chosen by his office.
“I think the report will stand the test of time,” he said, “and it will be tested by the other investigations that are going on. … [Lawyers would not] give away their reputations to do some kind of slipshod job for me.”
Montclair State University political scientist Brigid Harrison, who watched Christie’s news conference, said the governor was sending an unmistakable message that he’s back.
“He can now go to Las Vegas and say he’s been exonerated,” she said.
Christie attended the Republican Jewish Coalition’s conference in Las Vegas over the weekend, where he spoke to some of the GOP’s most influential donors.
Like other Republican speakers at the gathering, Christie largely avoided criticizing President Barack Obama by name in remarks that were thick with rhetoric faulting Obama’s foreign policy.
“We cannot have a world where our friends are unsure of whether we will be with them and our enemies are unsure of whether we will be against them,” Christie said. “In New Jersey, nobody has to wonder whether I’m for them or against them.”
Some Republican officials have stepped up pressure on former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush to run in the wake of Christie’s bridge scandal. But no single donor’s endorsement may be more powerful than convention host Sheldon Adelson, who is among the ten richest people in the world. The casino magnate almost single-handedly bankrolled the group behind former House Speaker Newt Gingrich’s 2012 campaign. Now, he’s casting for a new presidential candidate on whom to shower his millions in campaign cash.
Adelson was seated in front of the podium as Christie spoke.
Christie, a Catholic, said he was overwhelmed by displays of religious tolerance during a recent trip to Yerushalayim. “I took a helicopter ride from occupied territories across, and just felt, personally, how extraordinary that was to understand the military risk that Israel faces every day,” he said.
The comment about “occupied territories” drew murmurs from some in the audience. At a private meeting with Adelson later, Christie apologized for the use of the term, saying that he “misspoke” and it was “not meant to be a statement of policy,” according to a source quoted by Politico.
Also Friday, Christie announced the resignation of David Samson as chairman of the Port Authority, which runs the bridge. The former New Jersey attorney general was a Christie appointee who has not been accused of involvement in the lane closings but whose business dealings have come under scrutiny as the scandal unfolded.
In the interview with Fox News’ Megyn Kelly, Christie said the scandal won’t harm his long-term political plans.
“There’s no baggage here because I didn’t do anything,” he said. “And that eventually will wash out, as it’s starting to already.”