TRENTON, N.J. — New Jersey’s Republican Gov. Chris Christie, in an attempt to avoid damage from a scandal that could undermine his presidential prospects, said Thursday he has fired a top aide who apparently created traffic jams as part of a political vendetta. Christie denied any knowledge of the scheme.
The Christie administration stands accused of closing lanes on the George Washington Bridge, linking New York and New Jersey, in order to create a huge traffic backup as retribution against a local mayor for not endorsing the governor’s reelection.
“I was blindsided,” Christie said during a nearly two-hour news conference, speaking in a quieter tone than is typical for him.
“What did I do wrong to have these folks think it was OK to lie to me?” he asked.
Christie, a blunt, outspoken governor who has worked to create a pragmatic, bipartisan image, early on dismissed questions about the lane closures with jokes and denied that either he or his staff had been involved.
But after emails and text messages were obtained by The Associated Press and other news organizations Wednesday linking top aides to the lane closures, the situation turned more serious with many calling it the biggest test of Christie’s political career.
The U.S. attorney in New Jersey, Paul Fishman, said he was “reviewing the matter to determine whether a federal law was implicated.” The legislature is also investigating.
Christie told reporters Thursday that he fired that aide and that she lied to him.
“We fell short of expectations,” Christie said, adding that he was “stunned by the abject stupidity” shown in the incident. He said he is responsible for what happened and that he was “embarrassed and humiliated.”
“I had no knowledge or involvement in this issue, in its planning or execution,” he added.
The revelations raise new questions about his leadership on the eve of his second term designed to jumpstart his road to the White House. In less than two weeks, his second inauguration is planned in the shadow of the Statue of Liberty. He also faces a national travel schedule as chairman of the Republican Governors Association.
Democrats at the national level swiftly circulated the news of the scandal, calling it more evidence that the potential Republican candidate for president in 2016 is a bully. Some conservative Republicans who have been stung by Christie’s comments in the past joined in.
Even if Christie navigates this challenge quickly, it will almost surely come back to haunt him in a presidential run, said Republican operative Hogan Gidley.
“I don’t necessarily think it’s Christie’s policy that’s going to ultimately catapult or sink his campaign; I think it’s his personality,” Gidley said.
While the emails and texts did not directly implicate Christie in the closings, his top aides were very explicit about their intentions.
“Time for some traffic problems in Fort Lee,” Christie deputy chief of staff Bridget Anne Kelly wrote in August in a message to David Wildstein, a top Christie appointee on the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey. The authority is in charge of the heavily travelled George Washington Bridge.
“Got it,” Wildstein replied. A few weeks later, Wildstein closed two of three lanes connecting Fort Lee to the bridge.
Kelly hasn’t commented, and Christie said he hadn’t spoken to her since the emails were released.
Wildstein, a childhood friend of the governor, refused to answer questions Thursday before a state Assembly committee, asserting his constitutional right to remain silent.