Moving quickly to contain a widening political scandal, Gov. Chris Christie fired one of his top aides Thursday and apologized repeatedly for the "abject stupidity" of his staff, insisting he had no idea anyone around him had engineered traffic jams to get even with a Democratic mayor.
"I am embarrassed and humiliated by the conduct of some of the people on my team," the Republican governor said at an extraordinary news conference in which he patiently took questions from reporters — and answered in his typically blunt fashion — for nearly two hours.
Christie, who had previously assured the public that his staff had no involvement in the lane closings last September that caused major backups at the George Washington Bridge, said he fired Deputy Chief of Staff Bridget Anne Kelly "because she lied to me" when he demanded weeks ago that anyone who knew anything about the episode come forward.
Kelly was the latest casualty in a scandal that threatens to upend Christie's second term and his expected run for president in 2016. Two other top Christie appointees have resigned in the past few weeks.
The investigation broke wide open on Wednesday, with the release of emails and text messages that suggested Kelly arranged the traffic jams to punish Fort Lee's mayor for not endorsing Christie for re-election. The gridlock delayed emergency vehicles, school buses and countless commuters for four days.
After he cruised to a second term with the support of a majority of the state’s Latino voters, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie held himself up as a national model of how Republicans can gain the backing of the nation’s largest minority group.
But after the GW Bridge episode, many Republicans and Latinos – from New Jersey and elsewhere – expressed everything from concern about to condemnation of Christie.
U.S. Rep. Albio Sires issued a statement calling the released emails and texts between top Christie staff members and officials of the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey “disturbing.”
U.S. Sen. Robert Menendez, a long-time foe of Christie, said in a statement: “The closing of local lanes to the bridge during the height of the morning rush hour made school children late for classes and interfered with first responders making their way to emergencies. We are very fortunate that no one was seriously injured.”
Menendez, who was the target of a highly criticized Christie investigation – when the governor was U.S. Attorney – that led to no charges and that were seen by many as politically motivated, said he would be following developments closely.
“I will be reviewing testimony from the N.J. State Assembly Transportation Committee’s investigation,” he said, “and monitoring the U.S. Senate Commerce Committee’s inquiry into these matters so that it can be ultimately determined whether people were unnecessarily inconvenienced or put in harm’s way.”
The U.S. Senate Commerce Committee includes Marco Rubio, a Florida Republican, and Ted Cruz, a Texas Republican.
In an interview with CNN, a visibly exasperated Rubio repeatedly refused to express his views on the growing Christie administration scandal.
“I understand this is a big story nationally, but I don’t know anything about it,” Rubio said. “I think what we should do is allow that process in New Jersey to move forward.”
The reporter asked whether the scandal would have repercussions for Christie, considered a strong contender for the 2016 presidential election, and the Republican party.
“That’s just political speculation,” Rubio said. “Again I don’t know, I haven’t spent any time thinking about it.”
This was supposed to be a month of celebration for Christie's political future.
Besides firing Kelly, the governor cut ties to former campaign manager Bill Stepien, asking him to withdraw a bid to become the next state GOP chairman. The governor said he was disturbed by the "callous indifference" displayed by Stepien in the emails released Wednesday.
Stepien had widely been seen as a potential campaign manager for Christie if he runs for president.
Christie said he is still looking into the traffic jam episode and will take action against other senior staff members if it is warranted.
In his press conference, Christie focused repeatedly not on the lane closings themselves but on how upset he was that his staff didn't tell him the truth when asked, saying he was "heartbroken" and "betrayed" by his tight-knit circle of advisers. He said he saw the emails and text messages for the first time on Wednesday, and was "blindsided" by what he read, particularly the callous language.
"I had no knowledge or involvement in this issue, in its planning or execution," he said of the lane closings. "And I am stunned by the abject stupidity that was shown here."
Kelly hasn't commented. Christie said he hadn't spoken to her since the emails were released, saying he didn't want to be accused of trying to influence a possible witness.
"Time for some traffic problems in Fort Lee," Kelly wrote in August in a message to David Wildstein,a Christie appointee who resigned from the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey in December. A few weeks later that email, Wildstein closed two of three lanes connecting Fort Lee to the heavily traveled George Washington Bridge, which runs between New Jersey and New York City.
For weeks, Christie had asserted that the closings were not punitive, but part of a traffic study. On Thursday, he acknowledged that was a lie, because his staff didn't tell him what it had done.
Christie said he believed his staff in part because he had never heard of Fort Lee Mayor Mark Sokolich and had no idea his campaign was even seeking the Democrat's endorsement.
Still, the governor said: "I am responsible for what happened. I am sad to report to the people of New Jersey that we fell short."
Based on reporting by The Associated Press.