New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie (R-N.J.) has fired a top staffer involved in a growing controversy over a bridge closing last year, apologizing Thursday morning for the conduct of his staff.
In a lengthy press conference, the possible 2016 presidential candidate continued to assert that he knew nothing about the closures, pledging to fully comply with ongoing investigations into the scandal.
“I am embarrassed and humiliated by the conduct of some of the people on my team,” Christie said Thursday morning. “There’s no doubt in my mind that the conduct that they exhibited is completely unacceptable and showed an inappropriate respect for the role of government.”
Christie said he had fired his deputy chief of staff, Bridget Ann Kelly, for her role in instigating closures on the George Washington Bridge as an act of political retribution for the Democratic mayor Fort Lee, N.J., refusing to endorse Christie’s reelection bid.
He said that, to his knowledge, he had never met or pursued the endorsement of Fort Lee Mayor Mike Sokolich.
Later in the day, Christie met with Sokolich and apologized. Sokolich said he takes Christie at his word that he had nothing to do with the bridge closures.The governor also said he was taking action against his former campaign manager and top political advisor, Bill Stepien, for his involvement in an email chain unearthed in the investigation.
Christie had nominated Stepien as head of the New Jersey Republican Party, but said he’s withdrawing that nod, and also asking Stepien to stop his consulting role with the Republican Governors Association, which Christie chairs.
“All of the people who were affected by this conduct deserve this apology and that's why I'm giving it to them. I need to apologize to them for my failure as the governor of this state to understand the true nature of this problem sooner than I did. But I believe I now have an understanding now of the true nature of this problem,” said Christie.
The governor said he had terminated Kelly’s employment “because she lied to me….there is no justification for ever lying to a person.”
Christie answered more than an hour and a half of reporters’ questions on Wednesday, admitting the revelations about his staff's actions and tone — which he characterized as “callous” — affected him emotionally.
But he was adamant that he could move past the scandal and that his standing in the state wouldn’t take a hit from the news.
“I don't believe I've lost the trust of the people of New Jersey,” he said.
He said he believes that when New Jerseyans “see me take the action I'm taking today, that they'll say, mistakes were made, the governor had nothing to do with that, but he's taking responsibility for it, and he's made the decisions that need to be made and has promised us he'll continue to make those decisions if necessary going forward.”
And he insisted that the actions of his staff members weren’t reflective of a broader culture within his administration of political retribution, a persistent claim from Christie critics throughout his tenure and one that has grown louder since the bridge scandal emerged.
“This is not the tone that I've set over the last four years in this building. It's not the environment I've worked so hard to achieve,” he said, citing his bipartisan work with the Democratic-led New Jersey state legislature.
“And so I am extraordinarily disappointed by this, but this is the exception, it is not the rule, of what's happened over the last four years in this administration.”
Asked directly whether the emails reveal he’s a bully, Christie aggressively pushed back.
“I don't believe that… and I don't believe the body of work in the last four years displays that,” Christie said.
He added: “But the best I can do is when I see stuff like that, to end it. And I know that won't satisfy everybody, but I'm not in the business of satisfying everybody. I'm in the business of trying to satisfy the people who elected me governor.”
Christie held the presser in response to growing controversy surrounding George Washington Bridge lane closures that, for four days in September, snarled traffic in Fort Lee, N.J. in an act Democrats say was meant as political retribution against the town’s Democratic mayor for refusing to endorse Christie for reelection.
Many Republicans agree the controversy imperils his standing as the leader of the prospective GOP presidential pack, a prospect that heartens Democrats, who have seen him as their greatest threat in 2016. And New Jersey political observers believe the investigation will complicate his relationships with legislators at home and impact his second-term agenda.
Christie dismissed speculation over his presidential prospects, insisting he was focused on New Jersey, not 2016.
“I am absolutely in -- nowhere near beginning that consideration process. I haven't even been sworn in for my second term yet,” said Christie. “I’ve got work to do there. And that's my focus. My focus is on the people of New Jersey and the job that they gave me.”
The governor had long denied any knowledge of or role in the closures and stood by the explanation, offered by two Port Authority officials appointed by him to the organization, that the lanes were closed to carry out a traffic study.
But emails obtained by The Hill and other publications on Wednesday raised significant questions about that explanation. They showed a top Christie aide, deputy chief of staff Bridget Ann Kelly, appearing to collude with David Wildstein, a Christie appointee at the Port Authority, to create traffic in the town.
“Time for some traffic problems in Fort Lee,” Kelly emailed to Wildstein after the mayor failed to back Christie.
“Got it,” Wildstein emailed back.
News broke late Wednesday night that EMS vehicles were delayed on four separate occasions due to the four days of traffic created by the lane closures, and in one case, an elderly woman waiting unconscious for emergency medical help later died.
Christie said in a Wednesday statement that he was unaware of the correspondence between Kelly and Wildstein, and that in fact a member of his staff had “misled him.” He pledged to hold people accountable for the events.
Democrats in New Jersey are calling for a federal investigation into the closures. Wildstein is due to testify in front of the New Jersey state Assembly Transportation Committee shortly after Christie’s presser.
There, committee Chairman John Wisniewski, the lead Democrat on the investigation, told The Hill he expects further details surrounding the connections between the Christie administration and the lane closures to come to light.
And Democrats in Washington see this as the latest in a pattern of misconduct from Christie and his allies that shows the popular governor and leading GOP presidential contender is more of a scheming bully than a straight-shooting, tough-talking everyman.At least one Republican on Thursday was saying Cristie's 2016 prospects weren't doomed by the controversy.
Asked if he thought the governor’s move to take responsibility and fire top aides was “sufficient” to maintain his place as a leading contender for the Republican presidential nomination, Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) replied: “I think so."
--This report was last updated at 6:44 p.m.