For the first time since it was revealed that one of his senior staffers was involved in the decision to cause traffic delays in a New Jersey town, Gov. Chris Christie answered questions from the press on Thursday. One staffer has been fired, and the U.S. attorney has reportedly opened a preliminary inquiry into the issue.
"I apologize to the people of New Jersey. I apologize to the people of Fort Lee, and I apologize to the members of the state legislature," Christie began. "I am responsible for what happened. I am sad to report to the people of New Jersey that we fell short." (Oddly, he said he'd spent two sleepless nights worried about the issue that he said he first learned of on Wednesday morning.) But, he stated, "I don't believe I've lost the trust of the people of New Jersey."
Christie announced that Bridget Anne Kelly, the deputy chief of staff that sent the now-famous email declaring that it was "time for traffic problems" in the town of Fort Lee, was fired. Not for her email, Christie said, but because given the opportunity to reveal her role in the scandal, she lied to him. "I am heartbroken that someone ... in that circle of trust betrayed my trust," he said. Kelly had been "stupid," and "deceitful," in Christie's words. "She had no prior approval from the chief of staff" for the email, "and she had no prior approval from the governor." To a reporter: "I was lied to. And for that, she was terminated." (He explained that he didn't ask Kelly why she sent the email because he didn't want to interfere with an investigation underway by the State Assembly.)
Bill Stepien, a one-time Christie campaign manager that the governor recently asked to run the state Republican party, also had that invitation revoked. In the messages released on Wednesday, Stepien referred to the mayor of Fort Lee, Mark Sokolich, as an "idiot."
Asked if everything about the incident had come to light, Christie couldn't say it had. "I have no evidence as we speak that it went further. … But I can't make a warrantee on that." He has 65,000 employees in the state, he pointed out, and that there was "no way" he could know everything that's going on.
He flatly denied that he'd asked for the traffic problems as political retribution for the town's mayor having not endorsed him, and didn't recall having asked for any endorsement. "I wouldn't have been able to pick [the mayor] out of a line-up," Christie said. "His name was never mentioned to me. His position was never mentioned to me."
Was Christie involved in the decision to change traffic patterns in Fort Lee? "Absolutely not — and I knew nothing about this. … I was told this was a traffic study." In a hearing held by the State Assembly, the head of the Port Authority, which manages the George Washington Bridge between New York and New Jersey, indicated no study was underway. Moving forward, "I think I'm out of the traffic study business," Christie said.
He also denied having a long friendship with David Wildstein, the Port Authority staffer who received Kelly's instructions and who resigned last month. (Called before the state legislature to discuss the issue today, Wildstein plead the Fifth.) The two attended the same high school. "I was class president and played football" in high school, Christie said, implying that Wildstein didn't run in such circles.
How the week-long snarl actually occurred, Christie didn't make clear. But: "I am not a bully," he insisted, in response to a reporter's question. "I have a very blunt, direct personality." Earlier, he said that the Fort Lee incident "is the exception," he said. "It is not the rule of what's happened over the last four years of my administration."
Christie will travel to Fort Lee on Thursday to meet with the town's mayor and residents to apologize. (The mayor subsequently asked that he not, according to a reporter.) He was asked about the death of an elderly woman after emergency vehicles were unable to get to her as quickly as possible, and said it was "awful." But, he couldn't turn back time.
Christie was asked if he ever thought about resigning. "No," he said. "That's a crazy question."
Shortly before the press conference was set to begin, The New York Times reported that a U.S. Attorney in New Jersey would open a preliminary inquiry into the lane closures. "The decision to open an inquiry," it reports, "came after the matter was referred to the office by the inspector general for the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, which controls the bridge, the source said." This is not a full investigation, as Huffington Post's Ryan Reilly points out. Asked if he would cooperate with any inquiries, Christie responded, "I have absolutely nothing to hide."
When a reporter asked about 2016, a little smile came to Christie's face. He insisted that any such decision was far in the future.