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Chris Christie's Apology; Interview With Fort Lee Mayor Mark Sokolich

Aired January 9, 2014 - 18:00   ET


WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR: Happening now, breaking news, Chris Christie's traffic jam, New Jersey Governor and potential presidential candidate Chris Christie blasted by an exploding scandal.


CHRISTIE: I am embarrassed and humiliated.


BLITZER: Were lanes on the country's busiest bridge closed as part of a political vendetta against the mayor of Fort Lee? The mayor is standing by live to join us for his first interview since meeting with the governor just a little while ago.

And one top Christie aide has already been fired, while a former appointee is refusing to testify.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: On the advice of counsel, I assert my right to remain silent.


BLITZER: I'm Wolf Blitzer. We want to welcome our viewers in the United States and around the world. You're in THE SITUATION ROOM.

They're the kind of headlines that chill the blood of any politician, but for New Jersey Governor Chris Christie, the stakes are even higher. He's facing a blockbuster scandal involving massive traffic jams that allegedly were deliberately created as part of a political vendetta against the mayor of Fort Lee, New Jersey.

And CNN has just learned from a law enforcement source that the FBI is now assisting the U.S. attorney's office in New Jersey to see if any federal laws were broken.

Christie confronted the crisis head-on in a lengthy news conference.


CHRISTIE: I come out here today to apologize to the people of New Jersey. I apologize to the people of Fort Lee. And I apologize to the members of the state legislature. I am embarrassed and humiliated by the conduct of some of the people on my team.


BLITZER: The uproar certainly could have huge implications for Christie, had been a rising Republican star, even a possible 2016 presidential candidate.

Christie just met with the mayor of Fort Lee, New Jersey, and the mayor will be joining us live for his first interview since speaking with the governor. There he is. He's standing by.

But, first, I want to go to our chief national correspondent, John King, in Trenton, New Jersey.

What's the latest you're picking up there, John?

JOHN KING, CNN CHIEF NATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: John, the governor's -- Wolf -- excuse me -- the governor's office is happy with that meeting with the Fort Lee mayor. And I know you're going to speak with him shortly.

Part of the apology day, if you will, Governor Christie traveling to Fort Lee after a one hour, 48 minute press conference in which he apologized several times, said he was betrayed, humiliated, he was sad. And he said he had nothing to do with this, did not authorize it, knew nothing about it.

He also, Wolf, tried to address the critics that say that his political minions carried out this vendetta because of who Chris Christie is and how he governs. Governor Christie says that's not me.


CHRISTIE: I am who I am, but I am not a bully. And what I will tell you is that the folks who have worked with me over a long period of time would, I believe, tell you that I'm tough, but I have shown over the last four years in the tone that we have set here that I'm willing to compromise, that I'm willing to work with others.



BLITZER: John, does the governor mean that he doesn't really need to change the way he operates when he says he didn't do anything personally wrong?

KING: And interesting. I asked him that there, because one of two things happened. Either a handful of his most trusted aides were -- think they did what the boss wanted them to do, thinks that's the culture of the office, or they just decided to go rogue and then try to cover something up, something that they knew, had to know could undermine the governor's reelection campaign, could undermine his national ambition.

The governor says he's doing some soul searching to find out how he hires people and why he trusted these guys.


BLITZER: ... in New Jersey for us, thank you.

Joining us now for his first interview since meeting with Governor Christie, the mayor of Fort Lee, New Jersey, Mark Sokolich.

Mayor, thanks very much for coming back.


BLITZER: All right, so you had a meeting with the governor in your office over there, I assume, at City Hall.


BLITZER: Take us inside that room. Walk us through how it went.

SOKOLICH: Well, you know, we made it clear that we didn't want this to be a photo-op. We wanted this to be a pure -- if he was going to come up and apologize, to just come on up and say what it is that he had to say.

And, in fact, he did. He came up. He was gracious. He was apologetic, we believe sincere. But, you know, it's an ongoing investigation. And we're just very -- we're concerned that there's more stuff and more issues to deal with, but we are appreciative here in Fort Lee that the governor came up here to apologize.

BLITZER: You believe him?

SOKOLICH: I take him for his word.

Listening intently to the press conference today, I mean, there was no in between, there was no -- nothing but unequivocal statements that he had absolutely no knowledge. He repeated those statements during the course of our interview. I viewed it as productive.

By no uncertain terms is it closure. By no uncertain terms is it the end of this issue, though it is the beginning of what we're hopeful is a trusting relationship in -- without fear of retribution in the future. And in that regard, that was number one on my list, which was, you know, how do you assure us here in Fort Lee that we don't suffer the fate of retribution in the future? He assured us that wouldn't happen.

BLITZER: You have had a chance to observe him up close for four years now. Was this, this kind of political vendetta, the revenge that we saw in September an isolated incident or, in your recollection, in your memory over the past four years, were there other incidents along these lines that come to mind?

SOKOLICH: You know, in fairness, in the world of politics, if you're good at, I guess, doling out vendettas, sometimes, you don't even realize you're experiencing them, if you know what I mean.

But I have no knowledge of -- I have no knowledge of other retribution being aimed at the borough of Fort Lee. You know, and if you know me, you will know that I keep a pretty close tab on my community and what we do on a day-to-day basis, so I'm not aware of any.

BLITZER: The FBI has now been brought into this investigation on a federal level by the U.S. attorney in New Jersey. When you hear that and when you hear one of the Port Authority officials who had been appointed, David Wildstein now refusing to testify, taking the Fifth, pleading the Fifth Amendment before the state legislature, this seems to be escalating, this potential for criminal wrongdoing.

SOKOLICH: Yes. Well, it certainly does. You don't hear those initials, that being the FBI, unless it reaches a level of criminality.

And, sure, you know, look, you don't close the busiest bridge in the world without having any basis to do so and, quite frankly, your only basis is to dole out retribution. It's not something that's acceptable. And I'm sure it breaks laws. What those specific laws are, I don't know, but not something you do. So we -- I think everybody now recognizes the severity of it, which brings me to the next point, if I may.

You cannot imagine how grateful we are in Fort Lee are to the folks that are doing what they need to do to determine the facts, the Assembly Subcommittee for Transportation and their incredible work on determining precisely what transpired, who is responsible and to make sure that this doesn't happen again. We in Fort Lee are eternally, eternally grateful.

BLITZER: You believe, as he says, he's not a bully?

SOKOLICH: I don't know the governor well enough to be able to make a determination as to whether or not he's a bully or he's not a bully. And, again, I'm not waffling here. I see what I see. I see what you guys report.

Tough is definitely a word. No-nonsense is definitely a word. I think bully's a category that you need to know him a little better to be able to, you know, cast that description on the guy. You know, look, if somehow, some way it is established that he was involved in this, yes, bully would definitely fit.

Right now, we find him to be conciliatory, apologetic, and we take him for his word at this point. I will be sure to let my community know that my view of it was that there was a sincere apology. We accept him for his word. But, like I said, those fact- finders and those agencies will have to do their job, as they have been doing. And, again, I can't say it enough. We're so very grateful.

BLITZER: Your name came up in the news conference, and the governor spoke about you, professing he wouldn't even be able to pick you out of a lineup.

I want you to listen to what he said.


CHRISTIE: I never heard the Fort Lee mayor's name, Mark Sokolich, his name, until all this stuff happened. And so he was not on my radar screen at all.

Plenty of other mayors were, and a number of them wound up endorsing us, and a number of them I wound up having meetings with, like you're referencing.

Mayor Sokolich, not only did I never have a meeting with him. He was never mentioned to me. That's why -- you know, you go back to the question over here about, you know, making a joke about this. That's part of the reason I felt comfortable doing it. Like, this can't have anything to do with politics. I don't even know this guy.


BLITZER: We did go to his Web site, though, the governor's Web site. Look what we found. We saw a picture of you. There you are, right in the front there, and the governor, and not on your Web site, on his Web site. He says he never heard of you or certainly was not interested in getting your endorsement.

What did you make of that comment?

SOKOLICH: You know, I guess I don't have the impact on people that I thought I had, I guess.

You know, I don't know. I can't -- you would have to ask him that question. I was also surprised when I heard that he didn't know me or he couldn't pick me out of a lineup. In light of what's going on, I'm not sure those are the best -- that's the best term to use.

But I couldn't tell you. I don't know what his thought process was. I will tell you this, though. The concluding remarks that I made to the governor in my office a little while ago were, Governor, am I now on your radar? And his response was something along the lines that Fort Lee now has its own screen.

So, look, if there's a benefit that can be derived here for my community, I'm in it for Fort Lee, Wolf. I'm not going to grandstand here. I'm the mayor of Fort Lee. It's a place that I love. I need to protect it. I need to make sure our quality of lives are preserved. And we're hopeful that we're now going in the right direction.

And that's it. But we're getting our own screen, I'm told. I guess that's a good thing, I hope.

BLITZER: He obviously knows who you are. He said that when he saw you on TV yesterday, presumably here on CNN, he finally saw who you were. But I was surprised by that, because Fort Lee is an important city in New Jersey. It's the gateway for a lot of people that come from New York over that George Washington Bridge. They go to Fort Lee. And it was pretty surprising to me to hear he didn't even know who the mayor of Fort Lee was.

SOKOLICH: Yes, we think -- you know, we think we're pretty important, also.

We're the gateway community to the state of New Jersey. We're in the middle of a billion-dollar redevelopment. And I expressed that to the governor, too. We are in a very, very vulnerable state here. We're in the middle of this billion-dollar redevelopment. We're in the middle of special improvement development projects, redevelopment projects.

And we're on the -- we're in the middle of a renaissance that we have never, ever seen before. Fort Lee is once again regaining its status as the place to be. Right now, we don't need this. And we certainly don't need it with threat of future retribution. We have opened more businesses here in the last three months than in any three-year period. Folks are coming back, the culture has changed, the confidence level is at its highest.

We need to make sure that it stays there. You know, what's happened is something that happened and transpired over many, many months. It's not going to be cured during the course of one day, but if you have to take a step, I believe that this was the step that -- the step to take. So we're hopeful we're going in the right direction. And, as I said, we take him for his word.

BLITZER: Obviously, you didn't know the mayor -- the governor that well, Mayor, but what about these aides, Bridget Anne Kelly, his deputy chief of staff, who was fired today, or yesterday, Bill Stepien, the campaign manager, former campaign manager, David Wildstein, the Port Authority representative?

Did you know any of them? Did you have any dealings with them? Did you have reason to believe they'd seek some sort of political vendetta against you because you as a Democrat didn't endorse the Republican candidate for reelection?

SOKOLICH: Well, I was apparently on their radar screen. We now know that.

You know, as far as Bill's concerned, we definitely developed a personal relationship. I wouldn't say it was a good friendship, but it was definitely somebody that I can call and I spoke to on a pretty regular basis. He was our go-to guy.

Wildstein, I met once. That was it. And Bridget Kelly, I don't ever really ever recalling. The guy that called me an idiot, him, I never met. I would love to now, though. And that's really it. The only relationship I had out of these four was with Baroni.

BLITZER: All right, Mayor, you have got your hands full over there. Appreciate what you're doing. Appreciate your joining us. I'm sure we will continue this conversation.

I assume, like me, you believe this story is not going away, right?

SOKOLICH: I don't. I don't.

BLITZER: Thanks so much.

SOKOLICH: I don't, not to suggest -- thank you.

BLITZER: Go ahead. Make your final point.

SOKOLICH: No, not to suggest that anybody knew or didn't know. It's just I think there's many chapters not yet told.

BLITZER: Thanks so much, Mayor Mark Sokolich of Fort Lee, New Jersey.

We're going to have much more ahead on the breaking news we're following. When did the governor first learn about the major scandal? We are going to talk about that, a whole lot more. Stay with us.


BLITZER: Let's continue our coverage of the breaking news from New Jersey.

Joining us now, John Reitmeyer. He's the statehouse reporter for "The Bergen Record," which has been doing some excellent reporting on this.

John, thanks very much for coming in.

I guess the key questions, one of the key questions I have, since your paper really broke the story of all of these e-mails, did you call, the newspaper, call the governor's office for comment once you obtained these e-mails and texts before you went to press, before you posted all this information on your Web site?


My colleague Shawn Boburg broke that story Wednesday morning. And one of the first calls he made in the morning was to Michael Drewniak, the governor's press secretary, to try and get some sort of a comment to what was in the e-mails, which clearly caught the governor's office off guard.

We did not get a comment for first draft of that story from Drewniak or anyone from the governor's office. And I still don't know whether anyone has spoken to the press secretary. Obviously, we heard from the governor today.

BLITZER: I want to play the clip from Governor Christie at his news conference today about when he found out about your story in "The Bergen Record." Listen to this.


CHRISTIE: We didn't even know about the existence of the e-mail. I found that out for the first time at 8:50 yesterday morning. And you can only imagine as I was standing there in my bedroom with my iPad looking at that how incredibly sad and betrayed I felt.


BLITZER: So what jumped out at me is how much earlier before it was posted and he could watch it on his iPad, read the story on his iPad, did you actually call the governor's office to give them an opportunity to comment?

REITMEYER: I didn't make that -- that wasn't my part of the story. I didn't make that call personally. So I can't tell you the exact time.

I know we gave him a decent amount of time. You probably know some of these breaking stories happen fast, and I'm not going to say we waited all day for a comment before we went live, but I think it was fair, and I think we did give them a chance to respond.

BLITZER: So, just basically, it was that morning, though? It wasn't the night before? You didn't give him 24 hours or something like that to take a look at the story, to come up with some formal reaction, is that right?

REITMEYER: I don't believe so.

BLITZER: All right. I just wanted to clarify that one point, because it raised some questions in my mind earlier, and I'm glad you were able to do so.


BLITZER: Thanks to you. Thanks to your colleagues for all the terrific reporting you have been doing. John Reitmeyer is with "The Bergen Record" in New Jersey.

We're going to have much more on the story, our special panel coming up.



CHRISTIE: I have absolutely nothing hide. And I have not given any instruction to anyone yet, but my instruction to everybody will be to cooperate and answer questions.


BLITZER: We're following the breaking news. The FBI now assisting federal prosecutors in reviewing the scandal swirling around the New Jersey governor, Chris Christie.

Let's discuss with our senior political analyst, Ron Brownstein, and our chief political analyst, Gloria Borger.

He's got a long way to go, but did he help himself today? Did he clean up his image?


Look, I think this was a really tough situation for him. I believe that one of the main questions that I have that wasn't answered was why would somebody who is a deputy chief of staff feel that it was OK to freelance like this, if that's what she was doing, and that's clearly what the governor said, and do something which he called was, you know, callous and stupid, right?

So we don't have the answer to that question, but he was very direct and he left no question. As he says, he had nothing to hide. And this was full of absolutes. And so, if he has nothing to hide, then we got to...

RON BROWNSTEIN, CNN SENIOR POLITICAL ANALYST: He probably did as well -- I agree. He did as well as he could today. And I don't think that on current facts, which is always the key words in this, that these are by definition disqualifying events in terms of running for president, but I think the implication is that the story will go on, for two big reasons.

One, you have got other investigations. And second and more importantly, he's kind of wandered into the most dangerous dead end for a presidential candidate, which is validate a preexisting narrative. The idea that he can be a bully is something that's out there. And now future events, things that happen in the future, will be judged with this as part of the backdrop.

BORGER: And can you see a future presidential debate, for example, where one candidate says to him, stop bullying me, or we have seen this kind of behavior before from Governor Christie? I mean, now it was a part of the narrative, as Ron points out, but it won't go away.


BROWNSTEIN: It raises the sensitivity of future activities.

BLITZER: Having covered a lot of these scandals, like all of us have over the years, here's what I would worry if I were the governor.

A lot of investigators, journalists and others, government, local, state, federal, they're looking to see, is this an isolated incident? Is there anything else over the past four years the sitting governor or his staff might have done similar to this?

BROWNSTEIN: Right, lots of facts, both retrospective and prospective, will look different against this backdrop. That's really the long-term risk.

One thing we have learned from the scandals that both of us experienced in the '90s with Bill Clinton is that if the public trusts and likes a politician, they have a lot of tolerance for imperfection. I don't think that what we know now, this disqualifies him. But I also agree that this is something that's going to go on and it's going to change the way we view a lot of things, again, both retrospectively and prospectively.

BLITZER: We haven't really heard, Gloria, from the aides who were fired or dismissed or were involved their side of the story. One of them is pleading the Fifth.

BORGER: Right. And you have a lot of Democrats in the statehouse investigating this.

So who knows if there are going to be more documents. Look, the public, by the way, has a lot of patience for somebody who is a tough guy when the tough guy is getting something done on their behalf. But when the tough guy's people are causing traffic jams that cause them problems, they're not -- they don't have any patience for it. That's the problem.

BROWNSTEIN: And as Gloria put it, as you correctly noted, if he didn't do this to punish them for not endorsing him, why?


BORGER: We don't know the answer.

BLITZER: We will find out a lot more in the upcoming days.

Guys, thanks very, very very much.

That's it for me. Thanks very much for watching.