Fires 2 aides tied to traffic jam scandal
New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie said Thursday he’s not a bully and denied knowing about his aides’ decision to exact retribution on a Democratic city mayor by creating traffic problems, saying he learned of the plan only a day earlier.
Seeking to stem the political bloodletting, Mr. Christie said he fired a deputy chief of staff and ousted a top adviser — though the Republican governor said he bears ultimate responsibility for the scandal, which has tainted his image and may have tarnished his presidential aspirations.
In a 108-minute press conference, the tough-talking 51-year-old apologized repeatedly but said the scandal shouldn’t add fuel to an emerging storyline that he is a political bully who rewards his friends and punishes his enemies.
“I am extraordinarily disappointed by this, but this is the exception, it is not the rule, of what’s happened over the last four years in this administration,” Mr. Christie said. “I’ve worked with elected officials on both sides of the aisle, ones that I agree with and ones that I disagree with. The political overtones that were exhibited in those documents released yesterday and the conduct by those people is not acceptable.”
“I am who I am, but I am not a bully,” he said.
Democrats said the governor was trying to make himself out to be the victim, rather than taking responsibility for cultivating an environment that allowed for retribution.
“It’s clear that Chris Christie absolutely created and fostered a culture in his office where this type of conduct was considered appropriate,” said Mo Elleithee, a Democratic National Committee spokesman.
Emails obtained by the Bergen County Record and published on the paper’s website Wednesday morning seemed to indicate that the governor’s deputy chief of staff, Bridget Anne Kelly, along with a former campaign manager, Bill Stepien, and a couple of Christie-backed executives at the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, orchestrated the midSeptember lane closures on the George Washington Bridge, which connects New Jersey and New York, clogging the streets of Fort Lee.
“Time for some traffic problems in Fort Lee,” Ms. Kelly wrote to David Wildstein, a Christie ally and executive at the Port Authority, on Aug. 13 — about three weeks before the lanes were closed. Mr. Wildstein, who ordered the closures and resigned last month, responded, “Got it.”
Mr. Christie, who weeks ago denied that anyone in his inner circle was involved, held a press conference Thursday to say he had learned that was wrong. He said he fired Ms. Kelly and withdrew his nomination of Mr. Stepien to be chairman of New Jersey’s Republican Party, and also canceled any business Mr. Stepien had with the Republican Governors Association, which Mr. Christie now chairs.
Mr. Christie also traveled to Fort Lee to apologize personally to Mayor Mark Sokolich and the city’s residents. Afterward, Mr. Christie called the meeting “productive,” a term with which Mr. Sokolich agreed when asked about it on CNN. He also told the Bergen County Record that the meeting was a “big step” toward mending fences between the governor and the city.
Still to be seen is the effect of the scandal — and the governor’s response — on his presidential hopes.
Mr. Christie has spent years cultivating an image of bipartisanship, which helped him unseat a sitting governor in 2009, and to win re-election overwhelmingly in November. Mr. Christie’s crossover appeal has led some political observers to say he represents the biggest threat to Democrats in the 2016 presidential election.
But John Feehery, a GOP strategist, said Mr. Christie should be more concerned about how the bridge saga plays with Republican primary voters.
“For conservatives, having a politician using government to punish people is infuriating,” Mr. Feehery said. “It is kind of like what Obama has been doing with the IRS. It is not like conservatives trust him to begin with — and I like him, I want him to do well. But I am a realist.”
Kevin Madden, another Republican strategist who worked on Mitt Romney’s 2012 presidential campaign, said Mr. Christie could benefit from his decisive response in firing people. Mr. Madden said that contrasts well with the way that President Obama reacted to the troubled rollout of Obamacare last year.
“The most important part wasn’t drawing distance between his staff, but holding them accountable,” Mr. Madden said. “Christie can draw a favorable contrast with President Obama in that sense. They spent half a billion dollars on a website that wasn’t functional and not one person got fired.”
Some of Mr. Christie’s potential rivals for the Republican presidential nomination remained silent. Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky laughed at reporters when asked to comment on Mr. Christie’s woes. “Anything besides that,” Mr. Paul said, declining to comment.
In New Jersey, state Democrats vowed to pursue their investigation. Mr. Wildstein was called to testify to a state legislative inquiry Thursday but refused to answer questions, citing his Fifth Amendment rights. As a result, Mr. Wildstein was held in contempt.
There was movement on two other legal fronts Thursday. Six New Jersey residents filed a federal lawsuit against the Port Authority, the state of New Jersey and Mr. Christie. The lawsuit calls the traffic jams “deliberate acts” that made them late for work and caused panic attacks. They also want the lawsuit certified as a classaction case, a move that, if the lawsuit is successful, would let huge numbers of other people collect damages.
The possibility of criminal charges also hangs over the case, and U.S. Attorney Paul Fishman, who leads New Jersey’s federal prosecutors team, said he is “reviewing the matter to determine whether a federal law was implicated.”
David Wildstein takes an oath during a hearing Thursday at the Statehouse in Trenton, N.J., but is refusing to answer questions about a scandal involving Gov. Chris Christie.