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First Thoughts: The five questions Christie needs to answer

Christie press conference at 11:00 am ET ... Five questions for Christie - 1. Has that staffer been fired?; 2. Has he created a culture where this is thought to be acceptable? 3. Does he regret not taking this more seriously? 4. How can he regain voters/his constituents' trust? 5. Is he contrite, does he apologize? ... How Christie can recover ... On Capitol Hill: The gap of trust between Reid and McConnell has poisoned the Senate ... And partisanship will only GROW after 2014 ... More Gates fallout ... And Poverty in America: NBC's Brian Williams interviews Rep. Paul Ryan in Washington tonight.

*** The five questions Christie needs to answer: Attempting to deal with the fallout from the George Washington Bridge scandal, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie holds a news conference at 11:00 am ET from the governor’s office in Trenton. And he definitely has some questions to answer. After denying for more than a month -- in the most Christie of ways -- that anyone in his administration played politics with these lane closings in Fort Lee, NJ, on Wednesday, eye-opening emails and text messages from the highest levels of the Christie administration were released showing exactly the opposite. It was inevitable that Christie had to face the cameras, but it was odd how long it took him to confront this. This story cuts against every (formerly) perceived strength: he’s less ideological, willing to work across the aisle, and is a no-B.S. kind of guy. In the late afternoon, the usually bombastic and camera-friendly Christie released just a four-sentence paper statement: "What I've seen today for the first time is unacceptable. I am outraged and deeply saddened to learn that not only was I misled by a member of my staff, but this completely inappropriate and unsanctioned conduct was made without my knowledge. One thing is clear: this type of behavior is unacceptable and I will not tolerate it because the people of New Jersey deserve better. This behavior is not representative of me or my Administration in any way, and people will be held responsible for their actions."

NBC News chief White House correspondent Chuck Todd says that New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie must get out in front of the political scandal brewing over claims of an intentional bridge delay orchestrated by members of his own staff for political reasons.

But he still has a lot of explaining to do. Here are at least five questions he needs to answer:

1. Has that member of Christie’s staff been fired? Christie seemed to be referring to his Deputy Chief of Staff Bridget Anne Kelly, who wrote the email saying, “Time for some traffic problems in Fort Lee.” In his statement, Christie said the staff member “misled” him, and that “people will be held responsible for their actions.” So does that mean that Kelly is fired? Already, two top Christie Port Authority appointees have resigned due to this George Washington Bridge controversy. (One of them, David Wildstein, a Christie high school acquaintance - will testify at noon ET before a state Assembly committee hearing.)

2. Does it say something about the culture inside Christie’s office that aides -- without his knowledge -- were playing politics over these lane closures to punish a Democratic mayor for not endorsing the governor in a race Christie was going to win by 20 points? Even if you take Christie at his word that he didn’t know about this until yesterday, his top aides were playing politics with New Jersey residents. 

3. Does he regret not taking the allegations more seriously? When asked last month if his administration played politics with these lane closures, Christie said sarcastically, “I worked the cones on that. Unbeknownst to everybody I was actually the guy out there.” But until yesterday’s disclosures, it doesn’t seem as if the governor or anyone else in his administration was trying to get to the bottom of why these lanes were closed. Why not?

4. How does he regain voters’ trust? In his four years as New Jersey governor and on the national political stage, Christie has earned a reputation as a straight-shooter with the public. But has that reputation now taken a hit? After these previous denials, how does he regain that trust?

5. Does he show contrition and apologize to the people of Fort Lee and its Democratic Mayor Mark Sokolich? In his statement, Christie said he was “outraged” and “deeply saddened.” But he didn’t apologize. And we’ve now learned that those caught in the traffic jams due to the lane closures included police officers searching for a missing 4-year-old year and emergency workers responding to medical crises. He has to show real contrition and self-reflection, which is not exactly something that Christie has shown to be in his DNA at this point.

*** The difference between this controversy and last year’s IRS one: In addition, it’s important to point out a significant difference between Christie’s bridge controversy and President Obama’s IRS controversy from last year: Christie’s goes almost all of the way to the top. Just imagine during last year’s IRS reporting if an email from top White House advisers David Axelrod or David Plouffe said: “Time for an IRS audit for Tea Party groups.” And a Treasury Department aide replied, “Got it.” But such a link was never established. However, that link is EXACTLY the case with this George Washington Bridge controversy.

*** Christie can still recover: But it’s also important to emphasize that we don’t know what this will ultimately mean for Christie’s White House ambitions. After all, we’ve seen plenty of successful politicians survive scandals and controversies -- Gennifer Flowers for Bill Clinton. Tony Rezko and Jeremiah Wright for Barack Obama. But make no mistake: This is a serious story for Christie. By the way, if you are on Team Christie right now, you should know, plenty of folks will now be looking at other interactions between the Christie administration and local officials. If mayors were punished for not supporting Christie in his landslide bid for re-election, what did mayors get who DID endorse? The point is -- everything Christie did and does locally will be viewed through a different prism now and with more suspicion. If this controversy has done one thing, it’s cost Christie that “benefit of the doubt” aspect politicians need sometimes to weather controversies.

*** The gap of trust between McConnell/Reid: Mitch McConnell’s speech on the Senate floor yesterday and Harry Reid’s rebuttal shouldn’t be ignored. McConnell was complaining about the process again, Reid called him “cold-hearted” because Republicans aren’t dealing with and could now block the extension of unemployment benefits. It was inevitable that after the Democrats chose to change the rules that there was going to be a lot of fallout and the GOP was going to complain. There’s 100% agreement on both sides that the Senate’s a mess and isn’t working correctly. But there’s disagreement on who’s to blame. The real issue is there’s no trust between Reid and McConnell; that’s why each side is playing games with all the rules. The cynical way to look at what McConnell did yesterday was set up an excuse as to why Republicans won’t support Reid’s push for extending jobless benefits. But the fact remains, the lack of trust between the two parties in the Senate is corrosive to the entire body.

*** Partisanship is only going to grow after the 2014 midterms: And all of the acrimony has the potential to only get worse after the 2014 midterms. Congress is about to get more polarized in the Senate with all the retirements of moderates and look at the House, a place most would think couldn’t get MORE ideologically divided. Just in the last month, on the Republican side, there have been the retirements of Virginia’s Frank Wolf, Iowa’s Tom Latham, and Pennsylvania’s Jim Gerlach. On the Democratic side, out are North Carolina’s Mike McIntyre (announced yesterday) and Utah’s Jim Matheson. If you toss in Arkansas’ Tim Griffin and New Jersey’s Jon Runyan, and the pool of congressional members willing to vote with the other side is shrinking. Whatever’s left of the middle or the pragmatic caucus is disappearing. And there wasn’t much of a middle to begin with. Every one of these retiring members is going to be replaced by someone more partisan. It doesn’t matter which party wins control overall, the two parties, ideologically, will be farther apart and that guarantees even more gridlock.

*** More Gates fallout: The White House had a pretty successful PR day yesterday (with a little help from Christie). It walked the line to buck up Vice President Biden (lunch photo, schedule, statement). They were in a bit of crisis management on behalf of Biden, but didn’t criticize Gates. Gates’ critique of Biden is what it is, but, by the way, the Bob Gates painted by Bob Woodward is not the Gates that will show up in interviews next week though. Talking with folks close to Gates, he’s been a little stung by the portrayal of the book as solely a hypercritical tome of the president.

*** Promises: A White House official tells NBC's Peter Alexander: "At 2:00 pm ET, President Obama will host an event in the East Room of the White House where he will announce the first five "Promise Zones," located in San Antonio, Philadelphia, Los Angeles, Southeastern Kentucky, and the Choctaw Nation of Oklahoma. He will be joined by representatives and community members from each of the five Zones."

*** Brian Williams interviews Paul Ryan: With the 50 year anniversary of LBJ's 'War on Poverty' getting a lot of attention this week, and some high-profile Republicans in the spotlight for their efforts to change the conversation about how to attack poverty in America... Tonight, in Washington, Brian Williams interviews House Budget Chairman Paul Ryan and a panel of journalists on the poverty beat as part of the NBC News "In Plain Sight" poverty reporting project. The program begins at 7:30pm eastern and will be live-streamed and available on demand at InPlainSight.nbcnews.com.

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