‘Very Sad’ Chris Christie Extends Apology in Bridge Scandal

His emotional news conference unfolded as the United States attorney in New Jersey began a preliminary inquiry and as — just down the hall at the State House here — a former associate who was involved in the lane closings refused to answer questions posed by Democratic legislators investigating the matter, saying he would tell his story only under immunity from possible prosecution.

The Democrats promised to release more documents on Friday and issue more subpoenas of Christie aides. And the national news media that has so far bathed Mr. Christie in a distant, generally positive light descended on his doorstep here with a phalanx of television cameras and harsh speculation about whether the scandal would hurt his aspirations to be the 2016 Republican nominee for president.

In the afternoon, Mr. Christie went to Fort Lee, N.J. — the borough affected by the lane closings, which tied up traffic for days — and apologized to the mayor.

At least some residents cheered him as he arrived, even after his motorcade briefly created yet another traffic jam.

During his news conference, Mr. Christie said he had been “blindsided” by emails made public on Wednesday that showed that staff members — also his close friends — had punished the Democratic mayor of Fort Lee in September by closing entrance lanes to the bridge because he did not endorse the governor for re-election.

He said he had not realized the gravity of the situation even after officials from the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, which runs the bridge, testified a month ago that the closings had delayed emergency responders and had been done abruptly, secretively and against the authority’s protocols. His apologies were directed at the people of New Jersey and Fort Lee, and to reporters and Democratic legislators whom he had earlier dismissed as “obsessed” with finding out who closed the lanes and why.

Mr. Christie fired Bridget Anne Kelly, the deputy chief of staff who sent an email approving the lane closings, whom he called “stupid” and “deceitful.” Her deception, he said, led him to mislead the public, but he did so unwittingly.

He also asked his two-time campaign manager, Bill Stepien, to step down as a consultant to the Republican Governors Association and to withdraw his name from consideration to lead the state’s Republican Party. Mr. Christie is the chairman of the association.

Four weeks ago, Mr. Christie told reporters, he gathered his top staff members and asked them if anyone had anything to do with the lane closings. He said he gave them one hour before he publicly denied his staff’s involvement.

“They all reported that there was no information other than what we already knew,” Mr. Christie said.

He said he was “led to believe by folks around me that there was no basis to this.” But, he added, “I was wrong.”

The governor at times took overall responsibility for those who work for him, but argued that he had 65,000 employees and could not monitor them all. Still, he displayed only occasional flashes of his usual pugnacity with reporters, whispering as he said he felt “sad” and “humiliated” by the crass, mocking tone of his employees’ emails.

“I had no knowledge or involvement in this issue, in its planning or its execution,” Mr. Christie said. “And 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.”

Mr. Christie’s apology seemed aimed at trying to preserve his carefully developed everyman image. His office sent out video clips of his saddest moments at the news conference. And he offered that he thought voters would forgive him, because they recognize that people sometimes make mistakes and get hurt by even close friends.

Democrats argued that the increasing number of resignations and dismissals — two other aides resigned in December — and the names of the governor’s staff members on the emails made it hard to believe that the pettiness was, as the governor argued, “the exception and not the rule” of his administration.

“I find it hard to believe that Bridget Kelly on her own came up with the idea to divert traffic lanes in Fort Lee,” said Assemblyman John S. Wisniewski, a Democrat who has been leading the investigation.

“You have an administration that is very hands-on,” Mr. Wisniewski said. “It strains credibility to say that somebody in as high a position as a deputy chief of staff, somebody in as high a position as the governor’s principal spokesperson, somebody in as high a position as his campaign manager, all of whose names are in these emails, didn’t ever communicate this to the governor.”

In the questions from reporters, Mr. Christie struggled to explain how his organization could be as close as family — they celebrated birthdays and had parties together — but would not include him in either the decision to close the lanes in September or tell him about it during the months of questions since then.

Even on Thursday, he continued to assert that he believed the lane closings might have been a traffic study in Fort Lee, and that he knew nothing about it. But one email shows him approving a Port Authority traffic study for the town of Springfield. Mr. Christie insisted that the email, from Ms. Kelly, was a misstatement of what he had said or who had approved it.

For Mr. Christie, one of the leading figures in the Republican Party and a likely candidate for the party’s presidential nomination in 2016, the scandal represents the gravest challenge to his political career. It either suggests a failure of management skills or confirms what some critics have described as bullylike behavior.

“This is not the tone I have set over the last four years in this building,” he said. “I am who I am. But I am not a bully.”

The United States attorney for New Jersey, Paul J. Fishman, opened a preliminary inquiry after the matter was referred to his office by the inspector general for the Port Authority. Some legal experts, however, said it was difficult to imagine how the scandal could yield criminal charges.

The fallout from the release of the emails, which are as brazen as they are blunt, reverberated nationally, threatening to undermine Mr. Christie’s carefully cultivated image. And political opponents were quick to seize on the governor’s troubles.

“For nearly two hours today, Chris Christie stood up and repeatedly made himself out to be the victim,” said Mo Elleithee, a spokesman for the Democratic National Committee. “But Chris Christie is not the victim. The people of New Jersey who trusted him are.”

The controversy is unlikely to abate anytime soon, with New Jersey Democrats vowing to subpoena everyone mentioned in the emails. The State Assembly on Friday will release an additional 900 pages of documents turned over by David Wildstein, a high school friend of Mr. Christie’s who worked at the Port Authority, which could produce more embarrassing revelations.

Mr. Wildstein resigned on Dec. 6, saying that the bridge issue had become “a distraction” for the Christie administration.

Mr. Wildstein had challenged a subpoena from the State Assembly demanding he appear at an inquiry on the matter. A judge on Thursday ruled that the subpoena was valid, and he appeared before the Legislature later in the day. He declined to answer questions, even to confirm his employment at the Port Authority, and the lawmakers voted to hold him in contempt for his silence.

Bill Baroni — Mr. Christie’s top appointed staff member at the Port Authority and a longtime close friend who shared the same social circles with Mr. Stepien, Mr. Christie and Ms. Kelly — also resigned in December, after Port Authority officials testified in a legislative hearing that he had sought to hide plans for the lane closings from Fort Lee officials, the police and even other officials at the authority.

Both Mr. Baroni and Mr. Wildstein figured prominently in the emails released on Wednesday.

Ms. Kelly sent an email on Aug. 13 to Mr. Wildstein that called for Fort Lee’s mayor, Mark Sokolich, to be punished.

“Time for some traffic problems in Fort Lee,” she wrote.

One month later, on Sept. 9, Mr. Wildstein ordered traffic lanes from Fort Lee closed, causing a traffic nightmare that added hours to the commutes of thousands of drivers.

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