All-Star Panel: Reaction to report that Christie knew about lane closures

This is a rush transcript from "Special Report," January 31, 2014. This copy may not be in its final form and may be updated.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

GOV. CHRIS CHRISTIE, R – NJ: So what I can tell you is people find that hard to believe, I don't know what else to say except to tell them that I had no knowledge of this, of the planning, the execution, or anything about it, and that I first found out about it after it was over. And even then, what I was told was that it was a traffic study. And there was no evidence to the contrary until yesterday.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BRET BAIER, ANCHOR: That was Governor Christie in almost two hours of a news conference January 9th. Now there appears to be evidence, or at least charges that there was evidence that Governor Christie knew about this lane closure. The official, the former Port Authority official who personally oversaw the lanes being closed on the George Washington Bridge through his attorney writes this, quote, "Evidence exists as well tying Mr. Christie to having knowledge of the lane closures continuing during the period when the lanes were closed, contrary to what the governor stated publicly in a two- hour press conference he gave immediately before Mr. Wildstein was scheduled to appear before the Transportation Committee." Now, just before the show tonight, Governor Christie's office released a statement saying this, "Mr. Wildstein's lawyer confirms what the governor had said all along. He had absolutely no prior knowledge of the lane closures before they happened and whatever Mr. Wildstein's motivations were for closing them to begin with. As the governor said in the December 13th press conference, he only first learned lanes were closed when it was reported by the press, and as he said in his January 9th press conference, he had no indication this was anything other than a traffic study until he read otherwise the morning of January 8th. The governor denies Mr. Wildstein's lawyer's other assertions." So what about all of this? Let's bring in our panel, and syndicated columnist George Will, Julie Pace, White House correspondent for the Associated Press, and syndicated columnist Charles Krauthammer. OK, George, interesting back and forth.

GEORGE WILL, SYNDICATED COLUMNIST: If there's any dynamite in here, it comes from five words we just heard Mr. Christie say. He knew nothing about this until after it was over. Now, the letter from the lawyer, Mr. Wildstein's lawyer, makes much of the phrase, the Christie administration's order. No one is disputing this. Someone in the administration ordered this.

But it also said he knew about the lane closures during the period the lanes were closed. So that conflicts with the five words there. Mr. Christie's statement this afternoon then says he had no prior knowledge of the lane closures before they happened. This could be -- could be nothing more than an example of why you do not let people give 107-minute press conferences, because you're apt to come up with a formulation that makes you look more devious than you are.

BAIER: It goes on to say "evidence exists," Julie. We don't see in the letter that Wildstein has the evidence, what the evidence is, but clearly he's cooperating or planning to.

JULIE PACE, WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT, ASSOCIATED PRESS: That seems to be what we're supposed to read into this. Evidence exists. It seems like Wildstein is connected in some way to said evidence. It is a lot easier to say that evidence is out there than to actually produce the evidence and connect it to what you think it means.

And to George's point, if Christie did know that the lanes were closed during the period they were closed, I think the key question is, what did he know? Did he just know that there were some lanes that were closed on a bridge, or did he know that someone in his administration ordered those lanes closed?  So that's an unanswered question in this as well.

BAIER: Charles, I get all of these e-mails and people say, to quote a famous phrase, "what difference does it make?" on these lane closures. But in the big picture politically, for Christie, if it does turn out that evidence exists and he is tied to something that directly contradicts that 108-minute press conference, you've said at this panel, he's toast.

CHARLES KRAUTHAMMER, SYNDICATED COLUMNIST: And he would be. Look, Christie has lived for almost a month one e-mail away from utter ruin. There could be an e-mail. There's no evidence that there is, but there's a hint there might be some e-mail, some other piece of evidence, that he knew.

But not only that he knew, and that's what makes everything here weasely. So what if he knew? Yes, it would contradict what he said because he said I didn't know until after. But everybody in New Jersey knew. It was on the news. The bridge was a mess. So knowledge isn't the issue. It is, did he order it?

There's nothing in the letter that says that Christie had knowledge of how and why or that he gave the order or that he knew that the order had come out of his office. So that's the weaseliness in the Wildstein letter. The weaseliness in the Christie response is that he said I had no prior knowledge when he just heard him say that he didn't know during what was happening, either, which is a little bit implausible.

But I think what's so interesting about here is the timing. Here we are two days before the Super Bowl in New Jersey, first time. It's a place where Christie can appear on the scene, look like he's in charge, look as if he's got all of this behind him, and the lawyer releases the letter precisely on the eve of the big day in order to ruin it. So this is kind of nasty, and it's got potential, but we really don't know because of the mutual weaseliness in all of these missives.

BAIER: I think that might be a new term for you, weaseliness.

KRAUTHAMMER: I'm not even sure how to spell it.

(LAUGHTER)

BAIER: Politically, this was going to be a time for Chris Christie.  It was going to be the re-election with the support of Democratic mayors. It was going to be the state of the state that would be covered about this, you know, governor who rolled to re-election with a big win, and then the Super Bowl in New Jersey. It's kind of not turning out to be anything like that, George.

WILL: No, the damage has been done, even if it turns out that Mr. Christie has stated everything correctly and he knew nothing about this. The momentum he acquires has been taken away. Suppose there was an e-mail, a toast making e-mail, that says from a staffer, the governor wants this done. Well, that's part of the kicks of being on a politician's staff is to use the boss' name in vain. So that would prove nothing. But no question --

KRAUTHAMMER: There would be hearings from here to Chicago if that e- mail exists.

BAIER: Well, there will be anyway.

KRAUTHAMMER: And everybody would have to swear and there would be hours of testimony. It would be ruinous. I can't imagine he would survive that.

WILL: This has the potential to open up financial and political space in the Republican presidential spectrum. And the result would be enormous pressure on Jeb Bush to come in and become the establishment's choice.

BAIER: And for the people, Julie, who say this is frustrating to see all this focus and all of this attention and all of this spotlight on New Jersey and this investigation when in Washington a lot of investigations don't have this attention.

PACE: Sure. I mean, you could say, why this scandal as opposed to another scandal? But we have to put this in the proper context. Chris Christie is someone who has signaled all over the place that he is interested in running to be President of the United States. That puts you in a different category. You are going to get more scrutiny when you put yourself in that category. You know, if he has a scandal and he's thinking about running for president, people are going to cover it.

BAIER: So is Secretary Clinton. She has signaled she might run for president as well. 

KRAUTHAMMER: Right, but I think for Christie, you showed us here some numbers, where will you run her against him in Florida and he trails by 16 points.

BAIER: The Quinnipiac Poll.

KRAUTHAMMER: That is a lot. And if you looked at the numbers of people who like or trust Christie, that has flipped to -- I think he has lost about a net of 20 points over this scandal, so it's already had a huge effect on him.

BAIER: Next up, the Friday Lightning Round.

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