TRENTON, N.J. — Governor Chris Christie of New Jersey tried Thursday to control the damage from revelations that his administration ordered the revenge-closings of traffic lanes at the George Washington Bridge, by firing a top aide, cutting ties with a longtime political adviser, and repeatedly apologizing in a nearly two-hour news conference.
Sounding somber and appearing contrite, the normally garrulous Christie said he had had no advance knowledge of the lane closings and had been “humiliated” by the entire episode.
“I am a very sad person today,” the governor said. “I am heartbroken that someone I permitted to be in that circle of trust for the past five years betrayed that trust.”
Christie’s emotional news conference unfolded as the US attorney began an investigation and as — just down the hall — a former associate who was involved in the lane closings refused to answer questions posed by Democrats investigating the matter, saying he would tell his story only under immunity from prosecution.
The Democrats promised to release more documents Friday morning and issue more subpoenas of Christie aides. And the national news media that has so far bathed Christie in a distant, generally positive light descended on his doorstep here with a phalanx of television cameras and harsh speculation about whether the scandal would hurt his aspirations to be the Republican nominee for president in 2016.
In the late afternoon, Christie took a helicopter to Fort Lee, N.J. — the city affected by the lane closings — and apologized to the mayor. Some residents cheered him as he arrived, even after his motorcade briefly created yet another traffic jam.
During his news conference in Trenton, Christie said he had been “blindsided” by e-mails made public Wednesday that showed staff members — also his close friends — had punished the Democratic mayor of Fort Lee in September by closing entrance lanes to the bridge because he did not endorse the governor for reelection.
Christie said he had not realized the gravity of the situation even after officials from the Port Authority, which runs the bridge, testified a month ago that the closings had delayed emergency responders and
had been done abruptly, secretively, and against port protocols.
His apologies were directed at the people of New Jersey and Fort Lee, and to reporters and Democratic legislators whom he had earlier dismissed as simply “obsessed” with finding out who closed the lanes and why.
Christie fired Bridget Anne Kelly, the deputy chief of staff who sent an e-mail approving the lane closings, calling her “stupid” and “deceitful.” Her deception, he said, led him to mislead the public.
He also asked his two-time campaign manager, Bill Stepien, to step down as a consultant to the Republican Governors Association and to withdraw his name from consideration to lead the state Republican Party.
Four weeks ago, he told reporters before publicly addressing the controversy, he gathered his top staff members and asked them if anyone had anything to do with the lane closings. He said he gave them one hour before he publicly denied his staff’s involvement.
“They all reported that there was no information other than what we already knew. I was being led to believe by folks around me that there was no basis to this,” he continued. “I was wrong.”
The governor at times took overall for responsibility for those who work for him, but argued that he had 65,000 employees and could not monitor them all. Still, he displayed only occasional flashes of his usual pugnacity with reporters, lowering his voice to a whisper as he said he felt “sad” and “humiliated” by the crass, mocking tone of his employees’ e-mails.
“I had no knowledge or involvement in this issue, in its planning, or its execution,” Christie said. “And I am stunned by the abject stupidity that was shown here. Regardless of what the facts ultimately uncover, this was handled in a callous and indifferent way.”
Democrats said the increasing number of resignations and dismissals — two other aides resigned in December — and the names of the governor’s staff members on the e-mails made them incredulous that the pettiness was, as the governor argued, “the exception and not the rule” of his administration.
“I find it hard to believe that Bridget Kelly on her own came up with the idea to divert traffic lanes in Fort Lee,” said Assemblyman John Wisniewski, a Democrat who has been leading the investigation.
“You have an administration that is very hands-on,” Wisniewski said. “It strains credibility to say that somebody in as high a position as a deputy chief of staff, somebody in as high a position as the governor’s principal spokesperson, somebody in as high a position as his campaign manager, all of whose names are in these e-mails, didn’t ever communicate this to the governor.”
For Christie, the scandal represents the gravest challenge to his career. It suggests either he was a failure of management skills or confirms what some critics have described as bully-like behavior.
“This is not the tone I have set over the last four years in this building,” he said. “I am who I am. But I am not a bully.”