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Christie on bridge scandal: ‘I knew nothing about this’

Posted at 4:17 PM, Jan 09, 2014
and last updated 2014-01-09 16:20:12-05

(CNN) — New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie on Thursday said he was “embarrassed and humiliated” by the conduct of “some people on my team” over an unfolding political scandal, saying he knew nothing of their activities to apparently punish a local mayor by creating traffic jams in and around his community.

Christie, who apologized to the town of Fort Lee and the residents of the state at a nearly two-hour news conference in Trenton, said he fired a senior aide at the center of the uproar involving the alleged abuse of authority that political commentators suggest could mean bigger problems for the potential Republican presidential candidate in 2016.

“I am stunned by the abject stupidity that was shown here regardless of what the facts ultimately uncover. This was handled in a callous and indifferent way,” he told reporters the orchestration of traffic jams near the George Washington Bridge through a transportation agency, the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey.

Christie gave anyone with knowledge of the incident — which exploded with the release of e-mails between top Christie aides on Wednesday — that affected Fort Lee residents, commuters, and apparently public safety over several days in September to come forward with information.

“I am responsible for what happens under my watch — the good and the bad,” he said.

But the governor said he had no knowledge or involvement of this issue in its planning and its execution.

“I knew nothing about this,” he told a news conference.

He said he was “digging in” and asking questions to find out what occurred.

Prosecutors investigating

Justice Department prosecutors are looking into the matter, a spokeswoman for the U.S. Attorney’s Office in New Jersey said.

“I have absolutely nothing to hide,” Christie, a former prosecutor himself, said of the pending investigation.

Christie said he was “blindsided” by the release of the e-mails and text messages that bolstered claims by Democrats that the traffic jams between September 9-13 were meant to punish Fort Lee Mayor Mark Sokolich, a Democrat who did not endorse Christie’s reelection campaign.

Christie and his staff originally blamed the closures and the traffic delays on a mishandled traffic study, something he reiterated at his news conference.

He said he didn’t know if it was “a traffic study that morphed into a political vendetta or a political vendetta that morphed into a traffic study.”

The incident inconvenienced motorists, but also affected public safety, Fort Lee officials said.

The emergency services chief in the town referred to one case in a letter to the mayor obtained by CNN involving paramedics who were delayed in reaching an elderly woman who had suffered a heart attack. She was reached by an ambulance but later died. Further details of the woman’s death haven’t been released.

‘Time for some traffic problems’

The correspondence subpoenaed by Democrats investigating the matter is the most damaging evidence so far supporting their assertions that the move was orchestrated because Sokolich didn’t endorse Christie’s re-election.

The exchanges began three weeks before access lanes to the bridge were closed, two months before Election Day.

“Time for some traffic problems in Fort Lee,” Bridget Anne Kelly, Christie’s deputy chief of staff for legislative and intergovernmental affairs, said in an e-mail to David Wildstein, then the highest-level appointee representing the state at the Port Authority, which operates the bridge connecting the two states.

“Got it,” Wildstein replied.

In another message about school buses with students on board caught in the traffic jams, Wildstein writes, “they are the children of Buono voters,” apparently referring to Barbara Buono, Christie’s Democratic opponent in the election that he won handily.

Those cited in the series of e-mails and text messages did not respond to requests for comment or to verify the communications.

Christie said he found out for the first time Wednesday that a member of his staff had been connected to the scandal and immediately fired Kelly.

A judge ruled on Thursday that Wildstein must appear before a state Assembly committee investigating the scandal. Weinstein, who resigned from his top-level job as the scandal unfolded, invoked his constitutional right to not testify.

Christie said that Kelly had been fired.

Democratic New Jersey Assembly Deputy Speaker John Wisniewski said the e-mails call into question the integrity of the governor’s office but he said Christie’s name did not appear in the e-mails.

Never on his radar screen

Christie said Sokolich “was never on my radar screen” as someone whose endorsement he was seeking and expressed dismay at why anyone would try to retaliate against him.

“This can’t have anything to do with politics. I don’t even know this guy,” Christie said, adding that he would not be able to pick him out if he walked in the room.

Sokolich told CNN’s “The Situation Room” the e-mails suggested that political motives behind the lane closures have led him to believe that Christie is more clued-in than he’s admitted.

“I’m rooting that the highest elected official in the state of New Jersey isn’t involved. But I’m beginning to question my judgment,” Sokolich said.

Christie political woes

S.E Cupp, a Republican political strategist and CNN “Crossfire” host, said that Christie was “very believable” and “humble and contrite” during his lengthy appearance that she noted would satisfy some people.

“He’s not completely out of the woods,” Cupp said, noting that there are more questions to be asked.

John King, CNN’s chief national correspondent, said it was a defining moment for Christie in terms of his credibility.

“He stood there and took it,” King said of the barrage of questions from reporters, noting that his demeanor was uncharacteristically low key. “He understood the gravity of the moment.”

CNN Chief Political Analyst Gloria Borger said that Christie did well, expressing humiliation and apologizing. But she said he did not answer why one of his top aides thought apparent retribution was a good thing to do.

“The reasoning behind this still remains an issue,” she said.

But situation still could deepen Christie’s political woes, David Gergen, a CNN senior political analyst, said on Wednesday.

“If a woman died here,” he said of the public safety issue raised in Fort Lee, “he’s in deep, deep trouble.”

Rep. Bill Pascrell, a Democrat whose congressional district includes Fort Lee, said the scandal goes beyond e-mails.

“We went from joking about cones in the road to a very sad day,” he said. “I can assure you that this is only the beginning on what’s going to be a long investigation into behavior that’s reprehensible,” Pascrell told CNN in an interview.

As criticisms of Christie’s management style of being heavy handed and petty come to the forefront, Christie said, “I am not a bully.” But he added that he is “soul searching” about why he created an environment in which his staff felt they had to lie to him.

Potential legal case

CNN Senior Legal Analyst Jeffrey Toobin said there was a lot still to unravel regarding communications between the parties and how the decision to disrupt traffic was made.

“That question will be very important for Paul Fishman,” Toobin said of the U.S. Attorney for New Jersey.

But Paul Callan, a CNN Legal Analyst, said he’d bet a criminal case wouldn’t materialize from the basic facts of the incident. But, one could be brought, if there’s any attempt at a cover-up, he said.

Does this mean Christie’s presidential ambitions are dashed?

“Not necessarily,” Oxford University historian Timothy Stanley wrote in an opinion piece for “He’s a resourceful politician and it’s still many months before campaigning starts in earnest. But now, his opponents have a stick to beat him with.

It’s important to ask how much Christie knew, Gergen said, but the reality might be more complicated.

“Sometimes the boss does not order something,” Gergen said, describing the Nixon White House during the Watergate scandal.

“I don’t know whether Nixon ordered Watergate, but I can guarantee you that people who carried out Watergate thought that’s what he would have wanted. There’s an environment in which you find yourself sometimes on staff when things don’t have to be said. You sort of know,” Gergen said.

Democrats swarm

Christie is now campaigning for fellow GOP governors as chairman of the Republican Governors Association and is seen as a prime political target for national Democrats. Christie said the scandal would not impact his role with the group.

While Christie blamed his staff and accepted responsibility, he also praised his own response to the fallout, bragging that he asked Bill Stepien, a former campaign manager and recently nominated to be the New Jersey GOP chairman, to leave his organization by the end of the day and that he fired Kelly 24 hours after he found out about the debacle.

Stepien was part of the e-mail chain.

At a news conference last month, Christie hinted at a possible 2016 role for Stepien if he entered the presidential race.

When asked about possible White House aspirations, Christie said that is the last thing on his mind.

“I am not preoccupied with that job. I am preoccupied with that one,” he said.

CNN’s Jake Tapper, Paul Steinhauser, Alan Silverleib, Stephanie Kotuby and Dana Davidsen contributed to this report.