For the first time since newly released emails showed an aide to New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie was complicit in closing major access lanes to a bridge to exact political revenge, Christie on Thursday issued a public denial that he had any prior knowledge of the scheme and announced that the aide responsible for it has been fired."I had no knowledge or involvement in this issue, in its planning or its execution, and I am stunned by the abject stupidity that was shown here," Christie said during a two-hour press conference.
The controversy over the lane closures, which resulted in a massive four-day traffic jam in Fort Lee, N.J., exploded Wednesday when subpoenaed emails provided the first definitive link to the governor's office. The scandal threatens to unravel Christie's carefully curated image as a straight-shooter who puts his constituents before politics, and could threaten his standing as a potential presidential candidate.
Christie tried to mitigate the political damage Thursday with a mea culpa, saying he was “embarrassed and humiliated” by the incident, and calling the his aide's actions an ultimate "failure" on his part.
Nevertheless, Christie announced that he has fired Bridget Anne Kelly, a deputy chief of staff, saying she lied to him about the role she played in shutting down the local access lanes to the George Washington Bridge. The emails made public Wednesday, which were provided to a state panel investigating the incident, appeared to show Kelly ordered the gridlock to punish Fort Lee Mayor Mark Sokolich for not endorsing Christie's re-election.
Christie also demanded the resignation of Bill Stepien, his former campaign manager, who in the emails took a dismissive tone about the lane closures and called the Fort Lee mayor an "idiot." Stepien will no longer serve as president of the state Republican Party, and he will give up a consulting contract with the Republican Governors Association, of which Christie is the newly appointed chairman.
Despite the revelations regarding his close aides, Christie emphasized that he had no prior knowledge of Kelly's actions and said he was "blindsided" when he learned of them Wednesday for the first time.
"This is not the tone I’ve set over the last four years in this building," Christie said. "This is the exception. It is not the rule of what’s happened over the last four years in this administration."
But Christie emphasized that the buck stopped with him, and that he would bear the onus for what had happened.
"Ultimately, I am responsible for what happens under my watch, the good and the bad," Christie said. "When mistakes are made, then I have to own up to them and take the action I think is necessary in order to remediate them."
The controversy over the lane closures has whirred in the background since September, when questions first emerged about whether the lanes on the world's busiest bridge were shut down for a traffic study, as the governor's office claimed. The executive director of the Port Authority has since testified that no traffic study was ever ordered.
The controversy is gravely troubling for Christie politically as he weighs a 2016 presidential bid, in part because he has worked tirelessly to craft an image of himself as a leader who puts his constituents ahead of strategic political decisions.
The scandal could also play into an image of Christie, perpetuated by Democrats, as someone who will use intimidation and other questionable tactics to punish his enemies.
In response to a question by a reporter, Christie attempted to diffuse that stereotype, saying, "I am who I am, but I am not a bully."