TRENTON, N.J. – A contrite New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie apologized Thursday for a scandal that threatens his political future, announcing that he had fired a senior aide and banished his top campaign adviser for their roles in days of traffic jams orchestrated to punish a small-city Democratic mayor.
Christie at once claimed responsibility as the state’s chief executive but also insisted he had no involvement in shutting down a pair of access lanes to the heavily trafficked George Washington Bridge over four days in early September. The Republican governor said he was “blindsided” by this week’s release of emails and text messages detailing his office’s role in the plot to create severe gridlock in Fort Lee, N.J.
In a meandering, two-hour news conference in his office at the state Capitol, Christie said he was “embarrassed and humiliated” by an episode that left him feeling “heartbroken” and “betrayed.” Despite his reputation for “directness and blunt talk,” the governor said, “I am not a bully.”
Christie, a leading contender for the Republican presidential nomination in 2016, also tried to tamp down allegations that he had nurtured a culture of intimidation in his administration and his political campaigns.
“This is the exception – it is not the rule – of what’s happened over the last four years in this administration,” Christie said. He added that he was “stunned by the abject stupidity that was shown here.”
Christie repeatedly invoked his ignorance of key events, providing a stark contrast to his carefully cultivated image as a hands-on, can-do chief executive and former prosecutor who helped guide New Jersey in the painful aftermath of Hurricane Sandy.
Christie said he delegates “enormous authority” to his staff, despite his reputation as a micromanager. He said he first learned of the damning emails between his staff and associates by reading the (Bergen, N.J.) Record’s breaking news report Wednesday on his iPad at the governor’s mansion, as he got ready to shower after his morning workout.
The emails suggest that Christie operatives jammed traffic in Fort Lee to retaliate against Mark Sokolich, the small city’s mayor, who did not endorse Christie’s 2013 re-election. But Christie claimed he never knew his team was pursuing Sokolich’s endorsement and that, until he saw the mayor’s picture on TV, “I wouldn’t have been able to pick him out of a lineup.”
Following his marathon news conference, Christie traveled to Fort Lee to apologize personally to Sokolich and the community for the lane closures, which severely delayed commuters, school buses and emergency vehicles.
Although the mayor initially thought a meeting would be disruptive, he later said that he accepted Christie’s apology. “I take him for his word,” Sokolich said.
The office of U.S. Attorney Paul Fishman announced Thursday that it had opened a preliminary inquiry, and state Senate President Stephen Sweeney, a Democrat who is friendly with Christie, said his party’s lawmakers will continue their investigations but will not rush the process.
“We don’t want to create a political circus,” he said, “but answers have to be had.”