Christie fires aide, apologizes for traffic jams


KEY PLAYERS

Emails from an aide of New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie revealed that highway lane closures may have been created as payback against the Fort Lee, N.J., mayor, a Democrat, for not endorsing the Republican governor. Those involved:

Chris Christie

New Jersey governor: He gave a two-hour press conference Thursday, emphatically denying any involvement and repeatedly apologizing to his constituents for the scandal.

Bridget Anne Kelly

Christie's deputy chief of staff: Christie said she was fired "because she lied" when asked whether she was involved in creating the traffic snarls on the George Washington Bridge.

David Wildstein

Former Christie appointee to the Port Authority: He refused to answer questions Thursday from lawmakers. He ordered traffic lanes from Fort Lee closed after receiving an email from Kelly.

Mark Sokolich

Fort Lee, N.J., mayor: He said he accepts the governor's apology for the closures that affected his town, but added that the governor's office was tainted by "venomous, petty" politics.

OTHER DEVELOPMENTS

— Six New Jersey residents have filed a federal lawsuit against Gov. Chris Christie, the state of New Jersey, the Port Authority and others over the traffic jams that were engineered in New Jersey as part of a political vendetta against a Democratic mayor. The plaintiffs want it certified as a class action. Lawyer Rosemarie Arnold says her clients were late for work and that one suffered a panic attack.

— The chief federal prosecutor in New Jersey, U.S. Attorney Paul Fishman, said he is “reviewing the matter to determine whether a federal law was implicated.” The Legislature is also investigating. Using public resources for political ends can be a crime.

— David Wildstein, a Christie appointee who resigned from the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey after being implicated in the scandal, was found in contempt Thursday by a legislative committee after he invoked his Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination and refused to answer questions. The Port Authority operates the George Washington Bridge, where the lane closures took place.

— Associated Press

New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie fired one of his top aides Thursday and apologized over and over for his staff’s “stupid” behavior, insisting during a nearly two-hour news conference that he had no idea anyone around him had engineered traffic jams as part of a political vendetta against a Democratic mayor.

“I am embarrassed and humiliated by the conduct of some of the people on my team,” he said as he addressed the widening scandal that could cast a shadow over his expected run for the White House in 2016.

The famously blunt Republican fielded dozens of questions from reporters with uncharacteristic patience and at times a sorrowful tone.

Christie, who had previously assured the public that his staff had nothing to do with the lane closings in 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.

The gridlock in Fort Lee delayed emergency vehicles, school buses and countless commuters for four days.

Kelly was the latest casualty in the scandal. Two other top Christie appointees have resigned in the past few weeks.

The investigation broke wide open 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.

Christie traveled to Fort Lee later in the day and apologized in person to Mayor Mark Sokolich.

Christie said he had a “very good, productive meeting” late Thursday at the Fort Lee municipal building and that Sokolich accepted his apology.

The mayor told the Record newspaper that the governor had taken “a big step” in regaining the trust of Fort Lee residents by coming to their town, and that he appreciated Christie’s visit.

The political-payback allegations turned a local traffic furor into a national issue and raised questions about Christie’s leadership and integrity as he lays the groundwork for a White House bid. Democrats at the national level have seized on the scandal as more evidence that Christie is a bully.

The governor brushed off questions about the effect on his presidential prospects, saying he was too busy governing the state to think about that.

“I am absolutely nowhere near beginning that consideration process,” he said. “I haven’t even been sworn in for my second term yet.”

Afterward, some political analysts on both sides of the aisle said Christie would probably pull through OK — provided there are no more surprises.

Democratic operative David Axelrod complimented Christie for handling the news conference “as well as he could,” writing on Twitter: “Unless smoking gun turns up tying him to scheme, or others arise, he lives 2 fight another day.”

Besides firing Kelly, Christie 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.

Over and over, Christie took responsibility for the affair by virtue of his role as governor, while simultaneously blaming his staff for doing something “stupid” and for not telling him the truth when he asked.

He said he saw the emails and text messages for the first time on Wednesday, and was “blindsided” by what he read and outraged by the callous language. He said he was left “heartbroken” and “betrayed” by his tight-knit circle of advisers.

“I had no knowledge or involvement in this issue, in its planning or execution,” Christie 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 or asked to hear her side of the story 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 Wildstein.

“Got it,” Wildstein replied. A few weeks later, Wildstein closed two of three lanes connecting Fort Lee to the George Washington Bridge, which runs between New Jersey and New York City and is one of the busiest spans in the world, crossed by more than 100 million vehicles a year.

Christie said he believed his staff in part because he had never heard of Sokolich and had no idea his camp was seeking the Democrat’s endorsement.