By David Madden
TRENTON, N.J. (CBS) — Two of New Jersey governor Chris Christie closest aides have been fired, and more heads may roll in the wake of a discovery that traffic closures on the George Washington Bridge in Fort Lee, NJ last fall were, in fact, political payback for their mayor not endorsing Christie’s reëlection effort.
Christie minced no words:
“I come out here to apologize to the people of New Jersey,” he said this morning at the start of his press conference in Trenton.
He said that e-mails that confirmed the suspicions of many Democrats left him “embarrassed and humiliated.”
Christie announced that he had fired his deputy chief of staff, Bridget Anne Kelly, for lying about her involvement in the affair.
“There’s no justification for ever lying to a governor or a person in authority in this government,” Christie said, adding that he also didn’t like the tone of e-mails from his campaign manager.
So, Christie said he has also asked Bill Stepien, his former campaign manager and once his choice for state GOP chairman, to withdraw from consideration for the GOP post because of the “callous indifference” he displayed in e-mails on the traffic jams.
Nor will Stepien continue to consult for the National Republican Governor’s Association, which Christie chairs.
The governor insists he knew nothing of his administration’s involvement before the e-mails surfaced, but takes responsibility for what happened.
Hear Gov. Christie’s full statement in this CBS Philly podcast (runs 15:11)…
Kelly was the latest casualty in a widening scandal that threatens to upend Christie’s second term and likely run for president in 2016. Documents show she arranged traffic jams to punish the mayor, who didn’t endorse Christie for re-election.
The revelations thrust a regional transportation issue into a national conversation raising new questions about the ambitious governor’s leadership on the eve of a second term designed to jumpstart his road to the White House.
The US attorney in New Jersey, Paul Fishman, said he was “reviewing the matter to determine whether a federal law was implicated.”
The messages do not directly implicate Christie, but they contradicted his assertions that the closings were not punitive and that his staff was not involved.
E-mail and text messages were obtained yesterday by news organizations amid a statehouse investigation into whether the lane closings that led to the tie-ups were retribution against the mayor of Fort Lee for not endorsing Christie for re-election last fall.
“Time for some traffic problems in Fort Lee,” Kelly wrote in August in a message to David Wildstein, a top Christie appointee on the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey.
A few weeks later, Wildstein closed two of three lanes connecting Fort Lee to the heavily traveled George Washington Bridge, which runs between New Jersey and New York City.
Fort Lee mayor Mark Sokolich called it “appalling” that the traffic jams appear to have been deliberately created.
This morning, Christie said he would go to Fort Lee later today to apologize to Sokolich in person (See Related Story).
Beyond the specifics of the lane closures, critics suggest the incident reflects a darker side of Christie’s brand of politics that contradicts the image he’d like to project as he eyes the presidency.
The governor repeatedly sidestepped criticism that he bullied adversaries in an overwhelming re-election victory in November. Facing a little-known and underfunded opponent, he cast himself as a different kind of Republican: a compromising, consensus builder who ultimately earned strong support from minorities, union members and even many Democrats.
It was described as the opening argument for Christie’s prospective White House run. That argument is now clouded, at least temporarily, during one of the most important transitions of his political career.
Wildstein, a childhood friend of the governor, is scheduled to testify later today before a state Assembly committee (See Related Story). He asked a judge to squash the subpoena, but the judge refused to do so.
CBS 3 caught up with Lieutenant Governor Kim Guadagno Thursday night to try to get her reaction to all of this.
(Quinones:) “Lieutenant governor could we have a moment of your time? Could you give us your reaction to today’s event?”
She didn’t seem too keen on answering questions about the scandal. She was in Robbinsville, New Jersey, swearing in the mayor. After initially ignoring questions, the lieutenant governor made only a brief statement.
“The governor said he had a two hour press conference today. I think he’s answered all your questions and thank you for coming out tonight,” Lt. Governor Guadagno said.