“I’d love to say I missed you, but I didn’t.”
And with that jab to close out an hour-long press conference on Friday, it was clear the gruff, no-nonsense, tough-talking Chris Christie was re-emerging after a damaging few months that may have derailed his White House hopes.
The New Jersey governor and onetime presidential frontrunner spent two months on the ropes and largely silent. With his head down and out of the spotlight, he conducted only necessary business as head of the Republican Governors Association and for his own state.
But Christie made clear this week in a series of interviews and events that extend through the weekend that he’s back in the political arena.
An internal report released this week absolved Christie of any direct responsibility for the lane closures on the George Washington Bridge that has tarnished his administration and crippled his presidential prospects.
It also gave him renewed energy, the freedom to begin reestablishing his brand and what he feels is rock-solid evidence he’s been right all along.
“The fact of the matter is that I had nothing to do with this, as I said from the beginning. And this report has supported exactly what I said,” he told reporters on Friday.
Lingering questions about Christie’s level of involvement in the lane closures, orchestrated as an act of political retribution, took a toll on his image.
The man known nationally as the straight-shooting former federal prosecutor saw polling that showed half of New Jersey adults don’t believe Christie had been “completely honest” about what he knows about the scandal. His approval rating was underwater in March for the first time since he took office in January of 2010, and a record-low number of voters — less than a quarter — viewed him as trustworthy.
At the same time, he ceded his initial lead of the Republican presidential primary field to former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, and caused GOP donors to reconsider their support.
Christie said he was aware of his drop in popularity, but brushed it off.
“Yeah, sure,” he told a reporter when asked whether the scandal had hurt him, “but there’s nothing that’s permanent about that.”
And with the report under his belt, Christie is working to make sure that, indeed, there’s “nothing permanent” about his back-burner status and damaged image.
He sat down for an interview with Diane Sawyer on ABC on Thursday and will be on with Megyn Kelly on Fox News on Friday night.
Christie also spent this weekend with a handful of other potential 2016 GOP prospects at the Republican Jewish Coalition’s spring leadership meeting in Las Vegas, where he’s expected to meet with GOP megadonor Sheldon Adelson — though Christie told reporters he wasn’t sure if such a meeting was on his schedule for the weekend, as he hadn’t yet looked at it. He’s also stopping in Utah this weekend for an event with RGA donors.
No matter his bravado on Friday afternoon, in his ABC interview it was clear that the polls had hit a nerve with Christie. Talking to Sawyer, he emphasized all the qualities that once made Republicans believe he was destined for the White House, saying that the scandal had changed none of them.
“I am who I am,” he said. “At core, I am a passionate, loving, caring, direct, truth teller. And for some people, they love it.”
And the governor took pains to prove it during his press conference, again declaring, “What you get with me is what you get. I cannot shed who I am” as he gleefully sparred with reporters.
“It’s amusing to me when you guys write stories about what you think you’re entitled to. Well, what I think you’re entitled to is the answers when I get them,” he told them.
In typical Christie fashion, he derided reporters’ questions as “ridiculous” and refused to answer one when he saw it as based on an “infirm” premise.
Still, another resignation raises further questions, and Democrats insist they won’t let the issue drop. Christie announced during on Friday that Port Authority Chairman David Samson called him to resign earlier that day.
Though Christie said Samson had discussed his eventual retirement well before the bridge scandal developed, the former Port Authority official was also entangled in the scandal by emails that indicated he was aiding those who orchestrated the lane closures in responding to opposing officials.
Samson did not participate in the internal review that cleared Christie, causing some critics to question whether he had something to hide. Still, Christie repeatedly expressed confidence that Samson, a close political mentor to him, was not involved.
Democrats have argued the review was biased since was conducted by a law firm with ties to Christie, saying came to no new conclusions and ultimately served only to whitewash the scandal.
Christie himself admitted Friday he wasn’t sure when he’d be able to move past the scandal, saying “I have no estimate on when this will be behind me because I don’t get to decide.”
But with his travels this weekend and gubernatorial races heating up, it's clear Christie doesn't plan to disappear any time soon.