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January 9, 2014

Christie fires aide, apologizes for traffic jams

TRENTON, N.J. — 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 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.

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.

In other developments:

— 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.

— Christie traveled to Fort Lee later in the day to apologize in person to Mayor Mark Sokolich. While Sokolich accepted Christie’s public apology, he urged the governor to delay his visit, saying he suspects the whole story has yet to come out. He said the governor’s office was tainted by “venomous, petty” politics.

The 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 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. A few weeks later, 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.

In the back-and-forth emails and text messages that followed, Christie loyalists gloated over the traffic jams and called the Fort Lee mayor “an idiot” and “this little Serbian.”

For weeks, Christie had asserted that the closings were not punitive, but part of a traffic study, and that no one on his staff was involved. On Thursday, he acknowledged that was a lie, because his staff misled him.

Christie said he believed his staff in part because he had never heard of Sokolich and had no idea the Christie camp 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.”

———

Associated Press writer Steve Peoples in Washington contributed to this report.

 

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