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Friday, December 9, 2016

By Herb Jackson, The Record (Hackensack, NJ)

WASHINGTON — “Yes.”

With that one word, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie told a friendly Washington, D.C., audience Wednesday that he is still thinking about running for president, even as dual crises continue to bedevil his administration.

And with another word he told the high-profile crowd when he’ll make a final decision. “Later.”

Indeed, a confident Christie asserted Wednesday that the George Washington Bridge scandal and an $807 million state budget shortfall will not damage his political future. The lane-closing scandal “will all be a footnote” by the time he makes his decision, he told the crowd during an appearance at the 2014 Fiscal Summit sponsored by the Peter G. Peterson Foundation.

And he blamed the budget gap on state economists, including those on his staff who helped to write the budget last year. With trademark self-assuredness, Christie said he would “do what I have to do” to fill that gap, though he declined to say what. That will have to wait for an announcement next week, he said.

For 30 minutes, Christie answered questions from Bob Schieffer of CBS News in an ornate ballroom two blocks from the White House. The event marked another step in the governor’s attempt to recover from the massive political setback he suffered in January when The Record reported that a former aide sent an email declaring it was “time for some traffic problems in Fort Lee.”

Christie had previously mocked the suggestion that his staff was somehow involved in the closure of Fort Lee access lanes to the bridge last September. After the email’s revelation, he immediately fired the aide, Deputy Chief of Staff Bridget Anne Kelly, and apologized to Fort Lee for four days of gridlock.

A New York law firm hired by the administration investigated and cleared the governor of any involvement, prompting complaints that the firm’s report was a whitewash written by lawyers with political connections to the governor. Investigations continue by a special committee of the Legislature and a federal grand jury overseen by the U.S. attorney in Newark, while the Securities and Exchange Commission has reportedly begun to look at other financial moves by the Port Authority that helped Christie fund road improvements.

When asked by Schieffer, Christie said the scandal would not have any impact on his ability to close the budget gap.

“As far as the impact on my political future, I think it will have none because I didn’t do anything,” Christie said.

“In the end, what the people of New Jersey know about me is I tell them the truth. I told them I had nothing to do with it. And now you’ve had all kinds of people look at this for nearly 4½ months now and there hasn’t been one suggestion that I knew anything about it,” he said.

Christie said he was not the first leader to fire an aide who did things without his knowledge.

“I don’t think that would hurt anybody’s career and it’s not going to hurt mine,” Christie said.