Updated at 11:21, 11:28, 11:41, 11:55 am and 12:07 pm EST
Gov. Chris Christie stepped out with a direct public apology today.
”I come out here today to apologize to the people of New Jersey,” the second-term Republican governor and potential candidate for president in 2016 said at a news conference. `I apologize to the people of Fort Lee.”
“I am embarrassed and humiliated by the conduct of some of the people on my team,” he said. “There is no doubt in my mind that the conduct they exhibited is completely unacceptable.”
The controversy surrounding lane-closings that froze traffic in the town at the New Jersey end of the George Washington Bridge to Manhattan presents the first political test of the popular governor’s ability to manage a crisis within his office as observers nationwide measure his mettle for a potential presidential campaign in 2016.
“Christie aides ordered the shutdown of the Fort Lee approach lanes to the bridge during four days in September to punish a Democratic mayor, according to e-mails obtained yesterday,” as Bloomberg’s Elise Young, Terrence Dopp and John McCormick report. “ Though Christie responded with harsh words for the aides, the furor endangers his claim to bipartisan leadership and distracts from his growing role within his party as chairman of the Republican Governors Association.”
“Every presidential candidate has issues that arise,” Chris Lehane, a Democratic strategist and press secretary in former Vice President Al Gore’s 2000 presidential campaign, told our reporters. “How you handle it becomes a test of how good a candidate you are going to be.”
He handled it pretty forthrightly today, firing an aide involved in email traffic revealing a political motivation for the lane closures.
“All I can do is apologize” for what someone on his staff has done, Christie said. “I can’t reverse time.”
Christie confronted a question in his news conference about the image for bluntness he has cultivated, and media criticism that has emerged in the midst of the George Washington Bridge debacle that he actually is a bully.
“Politics ain’t bean bag,” Christie said. “On the other hand, that’s very, very different from saying someone is a bully… I feel passionately about issues… I am not a focus group-tested, blow-dried candidate or governor.”
“I am who I am,” Christie said, “but I am not a bully.”
Christie, 51, sought late yesterday to bottle the damage from the e-mails showing one of his top aides telling an executive for the bridge-operating Port Authority of New York and New Jersey that it was “time for some traffic problems.”
“I was blindsided yesterday,” he said of news reports yesterday about the emails. Before he came out to speak about it today, he said, he wanted to learn everything he needed to know. `I had no knowledge or involvement in this issue,” he said, “and I am stunned by the abject stupidity” of how the matter was handled.
Christie today fired aide Bridget Anne Kelly, a deputy whom the governor says lied to him when he asked his senior aides a month ago whether they knew anything about the lane closings that paralyzed traffic in Fort Lee.
“Time for some traffic problems in Fort Lee,” Kelly, one of three deputy chiefs of staff for Christie, wrote on Aug. 13 to David Wildstein, a political operative and high-school classmate of Christie’s hired at the governor’s approval at the Port Authority. In emails reported by the Bergen Record yesterday, Wildstein, who ordered the closures three weeks after Kelly’s message and resigned last month amid the widening scandal, wrote back: “Got it.”
And Christie called a news conference to explain how, during the past month, his own staff had lied to him about involvement in the lane closures.
As governor, he said, he should have known.
And indeed, he said today, he had asked his staff four weeks ago tomorrow to tell him if there was anything he needed to know before going out in public to say that he had not been involved in the lane closures. He said today that he gave his chief of staff and general counsel one hour to tell him, they interviewed members of the staff and reported back to him that there was nothing to know.
“But I believe I have an understanding now of the true nature of the problem,” Christie said. “I would never have come out here two weeks ago and made a joke about these lane closures if I had known that anyone on my staff would have been so stupid.”
“I am heart-broken about it, and I am incredibly disappointed,” he said. “I don’t think I’ve gotten to the angry stage yet, but I think I’ll get there.”
Christie said he’ll also be asking himself a question: “What did I do wrong to make these folks think it was OK to lie to me?”
He is headed to Fort Lee today, he said, to apologize to the mayor “face to face.”
“I think they need to see me do that personally.”
Dismissing questions about seeking retribution against the Democratic mayor for refusing to endorse his campaign for governor, Christie said his campaign had “pursued hundreds” of Democrats for support but he hadn’t even known that Fort Lee’s mayor was one of them.
Christie conceded that this episode clashes with the promise he made as governor.
“I am responsible for what happened,” a contrite Christie said today. “We fell short of the expectations we have created over the last four years for the type of excellence in government they should expect from this office.”
“I could never promise them a perfect governor’s office,” he said. And when he uncovers mistakes and lies, he said, “my obligation… is to act.”
“The test of leadership is what do you do,” said Christie, saying he has hired many people as governor, as a prosecutor and as a hiring member of a law firm. “Sometimes people are a mistake hire,” said. “You can’t prevent everything,” he said, but when people act wrongly or lie about it, “the test of leadership is, when you find it out, what do you do?”
“In this instance, my government fell short,” he said, “and that’s why I am apologizing.”
Asked if any of this will figure into his decision about running for president, Christie said he doesn’t even know what that decision-making process looks like. While the “chattering class” may be consumed with talk of 2016, he said, he is focused on the here and now. “Flattered” that people talk about him as a candidate for president, he said, he hasn’t even been sworn in for a second term as governor yet.
“I am not preoccupied with that job. I am preoccupied with this one.”