TRENTON, N.J. – 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 an interview Thursday with Diane Sawyer on ABC and another set to air Friday night on Fox News.
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.
He boldly laid down a solid double line in the road.
“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.”
Democrats have blasted the findings as a whitewash and an incomplete piece of work, noting that the two Christie allies accused of engineering the traffic jams by ordering lane closings refused to cooperate with the lawyers.
But Christie said the lawyers would not “give away their reputations to do some kind of slipshod job for me.”
A lawyer for one of the aides who refused to be interviewed, former deputy chief of staff Bridget Kelly, cast doubt on the credibility of the governor’s report, which concludes Kelly and a co-conspirator acted alone in shutting down traffic.
“The only credible investigation into the lane closings is being conducted by the U.S. attorney’s office,” Kelly lawyer Michael Critchley said.
Christie fired Kelly in January after learning she set the traffic scheme in motion with the message, “time for some traffic problems in Fort Lee.”
Christie termed the lane closings “inexplicably stupid.” The report cast Kelly in unflattering personal terms.
On Friday, Critchley said the attempt to impugn Kelly’s credibility is unsurprising because she may have evidence that contradicts the report’s conclusion that no one else in Christie’s office knew of the plot in advance.
The report portrayed the governor as a careful yet emotional leader who looked into the eyes of his top staffers as he asked what they knew about the lane closings.
It was deeply critical of Kelly and a former Port Authority of New York and New Jersey official suspected of orchestrating the gridlock to punish a Democratic mayor who didn’t endorse Christie for re-election.
Republicans beyond New Jersey remain uncertain about Christie’s ability to recover politically ahead of the 2016 White House contest. But Hogan Gidley, a veteran GOP operative, said: “It’s clearly been a good week for Chris Christie.”
Ed Borden, a Democrat and former New Jersey prosecutor who has been hired to do independent reports for some government entities, said he found the report on the scandal to be thorough but was troubled by the tone.
“It does not come off sounding like an even-handed weighing of evidence but rather as a brief on behalf of the governor,” he said.
“He wants to be in a position to say, ‘That’s over. We’re done with that. The report speaks for itself,’” said Peter Woolley, a political scientist at Fairleigh Dickinson University. “For people who are sometimes paying attention, it will be a positive vote for him. A lot of people get their news sideways, out of the corner of their eye.”
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.
On Saturday, Christie is scheduled to be at the Republican Jewish Coalition’s conference in Las Vegas, where he will speak to some of the GOP’s most influential donors.
Also Friday, Christie announced the resignation of David Samson as chairman of the Port Authority, which runs the bridge.
Samson, a 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.
Samson’s law firm was representing a business that was undertaking a redevelopment project in Hoboken. The city’s Democratic mayor, Dawn Zimmer, has said that members of Christie’s cabinet threatened to withhold Superstorm Sandy aid unless she backed the plan. Christie’s administration denies that.
Samson also was the subject of reports this year that found businesses he represented may have benefited from Port Authority actions.
He said in a statement that he had planned to step down from the chairman job anyway.
Other prospective presidential candidates are on the agenda with Christie in Las Vegas, including former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush and Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker. Their stock has risen because of Christie’s struggles.
Some donors gathered in Las Vegas suggested that Christie has a major opportunity to revive his image. The unofficial host of the gathering, major GOP donor Sheldon Adelson, previously held a fundraiser for Christie but is openly seeking a new presidential candidate to support in 2016.
In the interview with Fox News Channel’s 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.”
AP Political Writer Steve Peoples in Las Vegas contributed to this report.