New Jersey Governor Chris Christie on Thursday fired a top aide at the center of a brewing scandal that public officials orchestrated a massive traffic snarl on the busy George Washington Bridge to settle a political score.
Christie told a news conference he was stunned and heartbroken by revelations that his staff was behind the traffic jam designed to punish a local mayor who declined to endorse Christie’s re-election bid. The office of the U.S. attorney in New Jersey said it had launched an investigation.
The scandal and potential legal problems come as Christie has emerged as one of the most powerful figures in the Republican Party as head of its governors association and a possible contender for the White House in 2016.
“I am embarrassed and humiliated by the conduct of some of the people on my team,” Christie said. “I am who I am, but I am not a bully.”
At the news conference, Christie referred to the lane closings as a “rogue political operation.”
“I am stunned by the abject stupidity that was shown here,” Christie said. “This was handled in a callous and indifferent way, and this is not the way this administration has conducted itself over the last four years.”
Christie took reporters’ questions at the packed news conference at his office that lasted just short of two hours.
He appeared contrite, describing himself repeatedly as heartbroken and apologizing to the public, and even to the media, several times.
Toward the end of his lengthy appearance, he visibly relaxed, leaning against the podium, and resorted to his more typical form, calling one reporter’s question “crazy.”
Christie said he has dismissed his deputy chief of staff, Bridget Anne Kelly.
U.S. Attorney Paul Fishman – whose job Christie held before he was elected governor – has opened a probe into the lane closures, his spokeswoman said.
“The Port Authority Office of Inspector General has referred the matter to us, and our office is reviewing it to determine whether a federal law was implicated,” Rebekah Carmichael said in a statement.
The controversy erupted with the public release of incriminating emails showing that a top aide to Christie played a key role in closing some lanes to the bridge, in a ploy to punish the Democratic mayor of Fort Lee, New Jersey.
The George Washington Bridge, one of the busiest spans in the world, connects New York City to Fort Lee. The abrupt four-day lane closures in September caused hours-long traffic jams and held up the passage of school buses and ambulances.
A local newspaper reported that 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, a car accident, in which four people were injured.
Christie has enjoyed immense popularity at home since his election in 2009, particularly for his handling of recovery and rebuilding efforts after Superstorm Sandy devastated his state in late 2012. He was re-elected in a landslide in November.
He has also touted his ability to work with political opponents as a mark of his skill at overcoming partisan divisions and forging alliances to get things done.
But the blunt-talking governor is known as well for engaging in shouting matches, hurling insults and belittling challengers.
Christie said he had been misled by his staff and knew nothing of the lane closings before they occurred and that he had been led to believe the closures were part of a traffic study.
He also said he was “blindsided” and heartbroken by the emails, and that he was doing some “soul searching.”
“What did I do wrong to make these folks think it was okay to lie?” Christie said. “What I want the people of New Jersey to know is that this is the exception, not the rule.”
Despite earlier denials that anyone in his administration would shutter the bridge entrances as retaliation, emails released on Wednesday showed that at least one of his top aides, Bridget Anne Kelly, was involved in discussions about the closures weeks beforehand.
“Time for some traffic problems in Fort Lee,” Bridget Anne Kelly, wrote to a Port Authority executive in August.
The executive, David Wildstein, replied in an email: “Got it.”
In another message sent amid the gridlock, an unidentified author wrote: “Is it wrong that I’m smiling,” and Wildstein responded: “No.”
The Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, which oversees the bridge, had previously said it was the result of a last-minute traffic study.
The emails were supplied to the media by Wildstein, the Port Authority executive, in response to a subpoena issued by a panel of state lawmakers.
Wildstein later admitted ordering the lane closures and resigned his post.
The emails were supplied to the media by Wildstein in response to a subpoena issued by a panel of state lawmakers.
He appeared before the panel on Thursday but declined to answer questions, repeatedly invoking the constitutional protection not to say anything that might incriminate him.
A long-time Christie ally, Wildstein previously has admitted ordering the lane closures and resigned in December. Kelly was fired prior to Thursday’s press conference.
In September, according to a report from the Record, paramedics trying to reach an unconscious 91-year-old woman in Fort Lee, N.J., got stuck in a traffic jam caused by the lane closings.
The woman later died at a hospital of cardiac arrest, according to a Sept. 10 letter that EMS coordinator Paul Favia sent to the borough’s mayor.
Although Favia did not explicitly blame the woman’s death on the traffic delay, the paramedics got to her in seven minutes — it was one of four such delays reported by the coordinator, the Record reported.
“Paramedics were delayed due to heavy traffic on Fort Lee Road and had to meet the ambulance en-route to the hospital instead of on the scene,” Favia wrote.
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 2016 presidential ambitions.
“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.
In his press conference, Christie downplayed his potential plans to run for president. “I am not preoccupied with that job [the presidency]. I am preoccupied with this job,” he said.
The New York Times called on Christie to explain, apologize and clean house.
“Mr. Christie can start by getting rid of every one of his aides and cronies who knew about this scheme,” the times wrote.
The Wall Street Journal said it was a test of Christie’s credibility.
“America doesn’t need – after a year of revelations that the IRS was turned against President Obama’s opponents – another chief executive willing to condone government attacks on his political adversaries,” the Journal wrote.
“And Republicans don’t need a presidential nominee who fulfills the liberal stereotype that he’s a political bully,” it said.
In an editorial, New York’s Daily News pronounced Christie’s presidential ambitions as “all but kaput.”
“He will be lambasted and lampooned as a man of low character and horrible judgment,” the newspaper wrote. “Take his denials of knowledge with skepticism, and the man is a monster.”
Taking a poke at Christie’s heft and aspirations, the Daily News front page headline read: “Fat chance now, Chris.”
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.
In one not-untypical response, when asked earlier if he knew about the lane closings, Christie sarcastically replied that he personally had put out the traffic cones.
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.
Fort Lee Mayor Mark Sokolich, said on CNN he was starting to doubt that Christie had been in the dark about the closings.
“As things begin to unravel with emails, the actions of counterparts, resignations, engagement of defense council, that position becomes more and more difficult to understand, more and more difficult to comprehend and, quite frankly, more and more difficult to believe,” he said.
“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 added.