Saying he is "embarrassed and humiliated by the conduct of some people on my team," New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie on Thursday apologized to the people of New Jersey for his aides' role in a scheme to punish the Democratic mayor of Fort Lee by closing lanes that lead to the George Washington Bridge.
What those staffers did last September, Christie said, was "completely unacceptable." He said he has fired one top aide, Deputy Chief of Staff Bridget Kelly, for her role in what looks to have been a dirty trick that led to four days of horrendous traffic jams on New Jersey's side of the major route into New York City.
It was "an awful, callous, indifferent thing to do" Christie said of closing down lanes to one of the world's busiest bridges apparently just to make trouble for a politician from the opposing party.
Christie, who is widely talked about as a potential contender for the 2016 Republican presidential nomination, said he has "no idea" how the scandal involving his office might affect his decision about whether to seek the White House.
"I am absolutely nowhere near beginning" the process of considering a presidential run, he said during a marathon news conference in Trenton that began around 11 a.m. ET and lasted until nearly 1 p.m. ET. Befitting his place as a rising star in Republican politics, the news conference was broadcast across the nation by news networks. As Christie spoke, his social-media-savvy staff began posting video clips of his comments on YouTube.
Christie said he had been misled by Kelly, the aide. "Four weeks ago tomorrow," he said, he challenged his staff to come forward if they had any information about allegations of political chicanery surrounding the lane closures.
No one came forward, he said. It was "stupid [for anyone] to have been involved" and deceitful not to fess up, Christie said.
The governor said he had "no knowledge or involvement" in the decision to close the lanes to the bridge. He's also "stunned by the abject stupidity that was shown here," Christie said. At several points during Thursday's news conference, he said he'd been blindsided by the scandal.
Christie also said several times that he is sad, not mad, at this point. "A person close to me betrayed me," he said of Kelly. "I probably will get angry at some point. But I've got to tell you the truth: I'm sad."
He apologized for having sarcastically joked about the lane closures telling WNYC's Matt Katz on Dec. 2 that "I worked the cones, actually. Unbeknownst to everybody, I was actually the guy out there in overalls and a hat. You cannot be serious with that question, Matt!"
Today, Christie said he had joked that way about the lane closures because "I thought it was absurd, and I thought we had nothing to do with it."
Emails written by Kelly and others close to Christie indicate that they ordered the lanes closed in retribution for Fort Lee Mayor Mark Sokolich's decision not to endorse Christie's re-election effort last year. During that campaign, the Republican governor pushed hard to get support from Democratic politicians in his state part of an effort, pundits say, to build up his 2016 credentials as a lawmaker who can work across party lines.
Christie said Thursday that he will be going to Fort Lee to personally apologize to Sokolich.
The governor said it hadn't occurred to him until Wednesday, when the emails surfaced, that his campaign had even hoped to get Sokolich's support. "I never even knew that we were pursuing his endorsement," Christie said. Of Sokolich, Christie said, "I wouldn't have been able to pick him out of a lineup" until this week. "That's why I don't get this," Christie added later. "But it is what it is."
Asked if this scandal will reinforce an image of him as a bare-knuckles sort of politician, Christie said that while politics is a tough business, "I am not a bully."
He wonders now, he said, "what did I do wrong to have these folks think it was OK to lie to me?"
The governor also used his news conference to make the case that he's taking action. "The test of leadership," Christie said, is what you do when a crisis arises.
"I'm saddened to have to do this," he said of firing Kelly and launching a review of how the scandal came about. "It's difficult personally to do, but it's my job."
The governor said he has also taken action about things done by another close aide his campaign manager, Bill Stepien.
Stepien does not seem to have been involved in the decision to close the lanes to the bridge, but he does appear in emails written afterward. In one, as WNYC reports, he called Mayor Sokolich "an idiot."
Stepien will no longer be a candidate for the post of New Jersey Republican Party chairman, Christie said, and will no longer be a consultant to the Republican Governors Association. "I've lost confidence in his judgment," Christie said.
Our original post Bridge Scandal Threatens Christie's 'No-Nonsense Image' picks up the story:
The news that "Emails Tie Gov. Christie's Aides To Lane Closings Controversy" has led to headlines such as these on this morning after the story broke:
-- "Christie's Carefully Devised, No-Nonsense Image in Peril." (The New York Times)
-- "Controversy Deals A Big Hit To Christie's Reputation As Truth-Teller." (New Jersey's The Record)
-- "Chris Christie's Handling Of George Washington Bridge Scandal Veers From His Norm." (The Star-Ledger)
-- "Chris Christie's Critics Savor His Misfortune." (Politico)
-- "Bridge-Spat Emails Pose Questions For Christie." (The Wall Street Journal)
If you're just catching up to all this, our colleagues at WNYC sum up the news this way:
"A series of email messages to the central figure in the fray surrounding the closure of traffic lanes to the George Washington Bridge show a top aide to Governor Chris Christie was directly involved in what has become a burgeoning scandal for Christie. 'Time for some traffic problems in Fort Lee,' the aide to Christie, Bridget Anne Kelly, wrote to David Wildstein. A minute later, Wildstein replied 'got it.' ...
"Those closures caused a work week's worth of traffic jams in Fort Lee [last September]. Fort Lee's mayor, Mark Sokolich, did not endorse Chris Christie for re-election, and it's been widely speculated that his refusal to do so prompted the closures a charge Christie has denied."
It's a national story, of course, because Christie is widely seen as a leading contender for the 2016 Republican presidential nomination.
Now, he's going to face questions about whether the lane closures were politically motivated. And he's sure to be asked about reports such as this:
"Rescuers faced delays during medical emergencies because of traffic jams that appear to be tied to a political scandal engulfing former appointees of New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, according to a letter obtained by CNN Wednesday."
The governor's office says Christie will be holding a news conference in Trenton at 11 a.m. ET. We'll be watching for news from it.
Last evening, as we reported, the governor's staff released a statement from him. It reads:
"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."
Thursday on Morning Edition, WNYC's Matt Katz talked with host Renee Montagne about the scandal. Matt has also put together a look at the "3 Stages Of Chris Christie's Crisis Management." The governor, he says, has gone from sarcasm to contrition to outrage.
Not surprisingly, the news from New Jersey led both of Comedy Central's faux news shows Wednesday night: