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'Embarrassed and humiliated' Christie axes aide, apologizes for bridge scandal

Saying that he is “embarrassed and humiliated” by the behavior of his staff, New Jersey Governor Chris Christie apologized Thursday for the bridge lane-closure scandal that has swamped his administration and announced the firing of a top aide who tried to exact political revenge against a Democratic mayor.

"I had no knowledge or involvement in this issue, in its planning or its execution," he said of the emerging political crisis during a press conference that stretched nearly two hours. "I am stunned by the abject stupidity that was shown here."

New Jersey Governor Chris Christie addresses the media regarding the closure of access lanes from Fort Lee to the George Washington Bridge.

Christie said he was "embarrassed and humiliated by the conduct of some of the people on my team," adding that deputy chief of staff Bridget Anne Kelly has been dismissed effective immediately. 

“I terminated her employment because she lied to me,” he said, later adding that he has not spoken to Kelly since Wednesday's revelations and that she was not "given the opportunity" to explain the lie. 

"I am heartbroken that someone who I permitted to be in that circle of trust for the last five years betrayed my trust," he said. 

The New Jersey governor also said that he has directed another Christie confidant involved in the fracas, Bill Stepien, to withdraw his consultancy for the Republican Governors Association and his bid for state party chairman. 

The tough-talking Christie stated bluntly that he takes responsibility for the incident despite being "blindsided" by the news and "heartbroken" by the behavior of his staff. 

"Ultimately, I am responsible for what happens under my watch, the good and the bad," he said.

While he dismissed a question about whether he considered resigning over the matter as "crazy," he indicated that he is willing to speak to law enforcement officials if necessary, saying "I have absolutely nothing to hide."  

Emails published Wednesday suggested that Kelly worked with a port authority official to close lanes of the George Washington Bridge last September. The closures appear to have been designed to punish a local Democratic mayor who declined to back Christie's re-election.

“Time for some traffic problems in Fort Lee,” Kelly wrote to Christie ally and Port Authority official David Wildstein, who replied “Got it.”

Christie said he was not even aware that his team had been seeking the endorsement of Fort Lee mayor Mark Sokolich. 

"I never saw this as political retribution because I didn't think he did anything to us," he told reporters. 

Christie, a Republican with designs on the White House in 2016, previously denied that he or his staff were involved in the lane closures, which prompted massive traffic gridlock on the first day of school.

Andrew Burton / Getty Images

The New Jersey side of the George Washington Bridge, which connects Fort Lee, NJ, and New York City, is seen on January 9, 2014 in Fort Lee, New Jersey.

On Thursday, he said he does not know the origin of the claim that the lane closures were the result of a valid "traffic study." 

"I don’t know if this was a traffic study that morphed into a political vendetta or a political vendetta that morphed into a traffic study," he said.  

The controversy shows no immediate sign of waning.  On Thursday, Wildstein invoked the Fifth Amendment and did not answer questions on the matter at a state assembly hearing before its Transportation, Public Works and Independent Authorities committee. He appeared after his lawyers unsuccessfully tried to quash a subpoena to attend that hearing.

Later Thursday, six Bergen County residents filed a class-action lawsuit against Christie and others after they were stuck in traffic and missed work because of the lane closures. One of the complainants said she felt like a "trapped rat" during the traffic jam.

Federal officials say the Justice Department has received a request to investigate whether any laws were violated when the traffic lanes were closed. The U.S. Senate Commerce Committee is also looking into the Port Authority’s involvement in the matter.

The crisis is especially resonant because it cuts to the heart of the image Christie has cultivated, one of a bipartisan problem-solver and a plain-spoken political leader.

Christie said Thursday that the incident was not reflective of his personal style or of "the environment I have worked so hard to achieve" during his tenure as governor. 

"I am who I am, but I am not a bully," he said. 

Later, Christie traveled to Fort Lee and met with Sokolich behind closed doors for over half an hour. He told reporters the two men had "a good and productive" discussion. 

 

NBC's Pete Williams and Sue Kroll contributed to this report.

 

 

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