New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie Thursday apologized for days of traffic jams apparently orchestrated by aides and appointees as political vengeance, fired one of them and said he had "no knowledge or involvement" in a possible dirty trick that is now under federal investigation.
Christie, a possible 2016 Republican presidential contender, declared "I am not a bully" during an epic news conference that ran almost two hours on Thursday. He said he first learned Wednesday that top aides had lied to him about the George Washington Bridge lane closings and said "abject stupidity" and "indifference" to the public was not typical of his administration.
"I was blindsided," Christie said at the State House in Trenton, adding he was "embarrassed and humiliated." Christie, who had ridiculed the allegations over the September road closings in Fort Lee when questioned by reporters last month, admitted that "unwittingly . . . I said something that was untrue."
"I am responsible for what happened. I am sad to report to the people of New Jersey that we fell short," he said.
Christie said he had fired Deputy Chief of Staff Bridget Anne Kelly "because she lied to me" when he asked senior aides a month ago whether they were involved in the lane closings that paralyzed Fort Lee, a borough of 35,000 on the west side of the bridge.
Email documents released Wednesday suggest Kelly arranged the traffic jams to punish Fort Lee's Democratic mayor, Mark Sokolich, because he did not endorse Christie for re-election last year.
Christie Thursday also instructed Bill Stepian, his campaign manager, to withdraw from pursuing the state GOP chairmanship and his consultant job with the Republican Governors Association, which Christie heads.
Christie said he was disturbed by the "callous indifference" displayed in the emails by Stepien, who called the mayor "an idiot."
In Trenton, another Christie appointee, David Wildstein, a former top executive at the Port Authority who allegedly ordered the lane closures, asserted his Fifth Amendment rights more than two dozen times in refusing to answer questions at a legislative hearing Thursday. The committee found him in contempt.
Authorities announced several probes into the controversy. The U.S. attorney in New Jersey, Paul Fishman, said he was "reviewing the matter to determine whether a federal law was implicated." Christie, a former U.S. attorney himself, said the internal probe he launched Wednesday was continuing. The Port Authority's inspector general is also investigating.
The widening scandal threatened to upend Christie's second term, fuel questions about the governor's leadership and temperament and his claim to be a new kind of bipartisan Republican who reaches across the aisle. Christie rejected the notion that his often-combative tone encouraged his aides' behavior.
Christie repeatedly stressed how "sad" he was by what he called the betrayal of some of his closest aides.
"What did I do wrong to have these folks think it was OK to lie to me?" he asked. He said he had done much "soul-searching" over the past two days. "I'm sick over this."
He said he first learned of the emails at about 8:50 a.m. Wednesday, shortly after he had finished a workout with his personal trainer, and was about to shower. His communications director called to say the story had just broken on a newspaper website. Christie read it on his iPad.
"Time for some traffic problems in Fort Lee," Kelly wrote in August in a message to Wildstein, a top Christie appointee on the Port Authority.
"Got it," Wildstein replied.
A few weeks later, Wildstein closed two of three lanes connecting Fort Lee to the heavily traveled bridge.
The lane closures caused massive traffic jams, affecting not just traffic across the Hudson River into Manhattan but spilling over into Fort Lee, too. The Record newspaper reported that paramedics were delayed in reaching an unconscious 91-year-old woman who later died of cardiac arrest.
On the fifth day, officials from New York ordered the lanes reopened, easing the flow over a section of Interstate 95 that the Port Authority calls the busiest bridge in the world.
Fort Lee's Sokolich called it "appalling" that the traffic jams appear to have been deliberately created.
Late Thursday afternoon, Christie went to Fort Lee to apologize to Sokolich in person. Sokolich emerged from the meeting and said he accepted Christie's apology.
"I take him at his word, which is that he had nothing to do with it," Sokolich said.
With AP and Bloomberg News