New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie apologized to his state’s residents Thursday and announced that he had fired a top aide after emails surfaced indicating staffers planned to cause a traffic jam on the country’s busiest bridge as part of a political payback scheme to punish a local mayor.
“I am embarrassed and humiliated by the conduct of some of the people on my team,” Christie said at a press conference in Trenton, N.J. The Republican governor, clearly trying to get in front of a growing controversy, insisted he knew nothing about the scheme and that he was “blindsided.”
The newly surfaced emails run up against the denials Christie – who has been positioning himself for the 2016 presidential election – has publicly made, insisting the lane closures were not politically motivated and that his staff was not involved. He even told reporters at a press conference last month that the closures are “not that big a deal” and joked about his role, saying sarcastically, “I worked the cones, actually. Unbeknownst to everybody I was actually the guy out there, in overalls and a hat.”
The documents, uncovered by The Bergen Record, showed that Bridget Anne Kelly, a deputy chief of staff to Christie, directed Port Authority officials to close the bridge lanes three weeks before the chaotic traffic jams that ensued the week of September 9.
“Time for some traffic problems in Fort Lee,” Kelly wrote in an email to David Wildstein, a Christie-appointed executive at the Port Authority, which controls the bridge. Wildstein replied: “Got it.” Christie had previously said the lane closures were part of a traffic study being spearheaded by the Port Authority, not to punish Democratic Mayor Mark Sokolich of Fort Lee for not endorsing him.
Christie said Kelly was fired effective immediately. “I terminated her employment because she lied to me,” Christie said at the press conference.
Wildstein and Christie’s Port Authority appointee Bill Baroni have since resigned. And there have been reports that the traffic jams called by the lane closures resulted in slower times for emergency vehicles and may have hindered the search for a missing child.
Christie said he would visit Fort Lee to apologize to the mayor and residents later in the day. “Ultimately, I am responsible for what happens under my watch. The good and the bad. And when mistakes are made, I have to own up to them,” he said.
The governor concluded his prepared statement Thursday by emphasizing he “had no knowledge or involvement” in the bridge plot. “I am stunned by the abject stupidity that was shown here,” he added.
When asked at the press conference if he ever entertained the possibility of resigning, Christie exclaimed “God no…That’s a crazy question,” adding “I’m telling you I had nothing to do with this.”
Christie – chairman of the Republican Governors Association – has built a reputation as straight-talker, a politician willing to put partisanship and political games aside (read: Hurricane Sandy) to do what’s best for his state’s residents. He tells it like it is, the narrative goes, political consequences be damned.
But as more details emerge about Christie’s aides’ involvement in the widening scandal, the governor’s no-nonsense reputation seems to be crumbling.
“This undermines the credibility image he’s built,” said Monmouth University pollster and political analyst Patrick Murray. And that means people are focusing on the less-savory aspects of Christie’s reputation: He’s a bully.
Christie has been hammered in the press after the emails surfaced on Wednesday.
As the New York Daily News said in an editorial published Thursday: “In the best possible light, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie built a top staff of lying thugs who threatened lives and safety to serve his political ends. If not, Christie is a lying thug himself.”
Joseph Marbach, provost of LaSalle University and longtime New Jersey political analyst, said the new revelations “raise questions about [Christie’s] credibility and how informed he is about the daily activity of his staff.”
Christie said on Thursday that the controversy did not reflect how he governs or the work environment that he has cultivated.
“This is the exception. It is not the rule as to what has happened in the last four years of this administration,” he said.
Regardless of the current fallout, there’s no guarantee the scandal won’t haunt Christie for weeks or months – let alone years.
“If it’s just limited to this one story it’s more likely to go away at some point, unless the governor could be proven to have ordered this, which is unlikely,” said Murray. “But there’s also the possibility that others come forward and to say that they received the same treatment.”
Marbach predicted that while the drama hurts Christie in the short term, it won’t resonate by the time presidential primary season rolls around, should Christie decide to run. “I just think the public’s memory is too short and there will be enough other events in the election cycle and the news cycle.”
What’s fascinating is that Christie easily could have won re-election whether the mayor of Fort Lee endorsed him or not.
The Christie Administration “started to get greedy,” said Murray. “They can smell the White House, they can taste the White House and it gets harder to brush off those losses.”