An "embarrassed and humiliated" New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie on Thursday apologized for the bridge-gate scandal and said he has fired a top aide after fresh revelations that his staff played a key role in closing some lanes leading to the George Washington Bridge in what critics say was a political vendetta.
"I come out here to apologize to the people of New Jersey," he said, opening what would be a two-hour press conference. "I apologize to the people of Fort Lee. And I apologize to the State Legislature.
"I am embarrassed and humiliated by the conduct of some of the people on my team."
Christie said Thursday he has taken the following action:
- Fired his deputy chief of staff Bridget Anne Kelly.
Kelly sent the email to former Port Authority official David Wildstein that apparently set off the scandal. “Time for some traffic problems in Fort Lee,” she wrote.
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"I terminated her employment because she lied to me," Christie said on Thursday.
Christie said he has not had conversation with Kelly since the email came out, and she has not personally given him an explanation about why she lied abut her involvement. But, he said, he is "not interested" in hearing her explanation.
- Forced his two-time campaign manager Bill Stepian to take his name out of the running to lead New Jersey’s Republican party.
Christie also said Stepian will be lose his lucrative contract as a consultant to the Republican Governor's Association, of which Christie is chairman.
- Will meet personally with remaining members of his staff to determine if further action needs to be be taken.
- Will go to Fort Lee to apologize to the mayor and the city's residents.
Also on Thursday, the U.S. Attorney in New Jersey announced he will open an investigation into the bridge lane closings.
“The Port Authority Office of Inspector General has referred the matter to us, and our office is reviewing the matter to determine whether a federal law was implicated,” said Rebekah Carmichael, a spokeswoman for U.S. Attorney Paul J. Fishman, in a statement today.
"I have absolutely nothing to hide," Christie said at his press conference. "Any questions they want to ask me, they can ask. I have nothing to hide and this administration has nothing to hide."
Christie insisted he had nothing to do with the lane closings, which created havoc for hundreds of thousands of residents. But the governor took ultimate responsibility for the "mistakes that were made" when the order came down to close lanes on the bridge.
"Actions have consequences," he said. "I had no knowledge of this issue in its planning and execution. I am stunned by the abject stupidity that was involved here. This was handled in an callous an indifferent way."
Further, Christie said, he wanted to assure the people of New Jersey, saying he can't know what every employee is doing, but he's ultimately responsible.
The governor said he was "sad" and "heartbroken" that he was betrayed by long-time staffers, whom he trusted.
"Prior to yesterday, I believed if I looked someone in the eye and asked them, I would get an honest answer," he said, in response to a reporter's question. "I did that four weeks ago and I wound up being wrong."
Meanwhile, Christie insisted that the emails do not represent the "type of environment I tried to achieve," and denied that Fort Lee Mayor Mark Sokolich was someone whose endorsement he had tried to pursue.
"We pursued hundreds," said Christie. "I don't remember any time we went after his endorsement. I don't remember ever meeting Mayor Sokolich, until I saw his picture last night on television. I wouldn't have been able to pick him out in a lineup."
Christie said the incident is making him do a great deal of 'soul searching,' and he does not know what he did to make his staff think their actions would be appropriate.
"You always wonder what you could do differently,' he said. "I've worked over the last 12 years working on a reputation for honesty and directness and blunt talk."
Meanwhile, Christie refused to speculate what the bridge-gate scandal could do to his 2016 presidential aspirations, because as for now, he "has no idea what the decision-making process would look like at this time."
"I am enormously flattered that folks would talk about me as someone in their party" that could run for president, but "I am nowhere near that consideration process. I haven't even been sworn in for my second term as governor.
"I am not preoccupied with that job. I am preoccupied with this job. And, as you can tell, I have a lot to do."
The George Washington Bridge is among the world's busiest, carrying some 300,000 vehicles on a typical day. The abrupt and unexpected lane closures, which lasted four days in September, badly snarled traffic in the borough of Fort Lee at the New Jersey end of the bridge.
Critics say the shutdown was retribution against the Democratic mayor of Fort Lee, who did not endorse the governor's re-election efforts. The Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, which oversees the bridge, said it was the result of a last-minute traffic study.
The emails raised fresh questions about the involvement of Christie's administration.
"Time for some traffic problems in Fort Lee," his aide, Bridget Anne Kelly, wrote to a Port Authority executive in August.
The executive, David Wildstein, replied in an email: "Got it."
The emails do not give a specific reason for the closings, which left furious commuters trapped in traffic jams for hours. The closings began on the first day of school in Fort Lee.
A local New Jersey paper reported that, as a result of the lane closures, emergency responders were delayed in attending to four medical situations. One involved an unconscious 91-year-old woman who later died of cardiac arrest and another car accident in which four people were injured.
The Record quoted a letter to the mayor of Fort Lee from responders, saying it took them twice as long to arrive on the spot in at least two cases.
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Chairman of the Republican Governors Association and enormously popular, Christie won his second term by a landslide in November, garnering votes from all sides of the political spectrum.
But some question how far his blunt, tough-talking "Jersey" posturing will take him on the national stage. Christie is known for engaging in shouting matches, hurling insults and belittling challengers.
Matthew Hale, an associate professor of political science at Seton Hall University in South Orange, New Jersey, said the growing scandal deals a huge blow to Christie's political aspirations.
"The smoking gun is not quite in the governor's hand, but these e-mails show that it is awfully close to it," Hale said.
"Governor Christie has spent an enormous amount of effort trying to get away from the narrative that he is a bully," he said. "These emails destroy all of that effort in a single day."
Fort Lee Mayor Mark Sokolich, said on CNN he was starting to doubt that Christie had been in the dark about the closings.
"I'm actually rooting that the highest elected official in the state of New Jersey isn't involved in this, but I will tell you I'm beginning to question my judgment," he said.
Political rivals were quick to slam Christie, with the Democratic National Committee (DNC) calling the revelations troubling and in line with Christie's style.
"They also indicate what we've come to expect from Governor Christie. When people oppose him, he exacts retribution. When people question him, he belittles and snidely jokes. And when anyone dares to look into his Administration, he bullies and attacks," DNC Chair Debbie Wasserman Schultz said in a statement.
The bridge lane closure emails were supplied to the media by Wildstein, the Port Authority executive, in response to a subpoena issued by a panel of state lawmakers.
A long-time Christie ally, Wildstein previously has admitted ordering the lane closures and resigned in December. He was due to testify before the panel on Thursday.
In the state capital of Trenton, Deputy Assembly Speaker John Wisniewski, a Democrat, said the emails showed "government at its worst."
"Among other things, they call into serious question the honesty of this governor and his staff. As a result of what has been revealed today, this governor has a lot of explaining to do," Wisniewski said.
Christie often touts his willingness to work with opponents as well as allies - a stance seen as a way of positioning himself as a national candidate able to close bitter partisan divides and win the White House.
A former prosecutor, he was highly visible working with Democratic U.S. Senator Cory Booker, the former mayor of Newark, and he notably praised President Barack Obama in 2012 for his response to New Jersey's needs after Superstorm Sandy.
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