New Jersey's Christie looks to recover after staff shakeup

By Steve Peoples

Associated Press

Published: Friday, Jan. 10 2014 8:26 a.m. MST

New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie walks past reporters as he leaves City Hall Thursday, Jan. 9, 2014, in Fort Lee, N.J. Christie traveled to Fort Lee to apologize in person to Mayor Mark Sokolich. Moving quickly to contain a widening political scandal, Gov. Chris Christie fired one of his top aides Thursday and apologized repeatedly for the "abject stupidity" of his staff, insisting he had no idea anyone around him had engineered traffic jams to get even with a Democratic mayor.

Louis Lanzano, Associated Press

TRENTON, N.J. — A wounded Chris Christie is working to move beyond the most challenging test of his political career, a traffic scandal that rocked his administration this week and threatens to tarnish his national image ahead of the next presidential contest.

Allies of Christie, New Jersey's Republican governor and a possible candidate for president in 2016, suggest the worst is behind him. But critics promise to keep probing what happened, federal prosecutors are examining the case and hundreds more internal documents were scheduled for release Friday.

"I am embarrassed and humiliated by the conduct of some of the people on my team," the famously blunt Christie said Thursday while facing reporters.

Christie had previously assured the public that his staff had nothing to do with lane closings last fall that caused major backups at the George Washington Bridge, among the world's busiest. But after documents revealed Wednesday that his administration may have intentionally caused the traffic jam to exact political retribution, the governor fired a top aide and jettisoned his chief political adviser.

Christie adamantly denied any personal "knowledge or involvement" in the lane closures, a passionate pronouncement that satisfied some critics in the short term but creates political risk amid ongoing investigations. Democrats and Republicans said the governor's presidential prospects could be severely undermined, if not crippled, should evidence emerge that contradicts his denials.

"Unless something new develops, I think he'll survive," said former New Jersey Gov. Tom Kean, a Republican whom Christie has described as a mentor. "But if there's a pattern of these things, if other incidents emerge with similar characteristics, that's going to be a real problem."

David Axelrod, a top adviser to President Barack Obama's campaigns, said Christie handled the high-profile news conference "as well as he could."

Unless a smoking gun turns up, "he lives to fight another day," Axelrod tweeted.

Christie said he fired the aide, Deputy Chief of Staff Bridget Anne Kelly, "because she lied to me" when he demanded weeks ago that anyone who knew anything about the episode come forward. He also cut ties to former campaign manager Bill Stepien, asking him to withdraw a bid to become the next state GOP chairman.

The governor said he was disturbed by the "callous indifference" Stepien displayed in emails released this week. Stepien had widely been seen as a potential campaign manager for Christie if he runs for president and had been tapped to serve as a senior political aide to the Republican Governors Association, which Christie will lead for the next year.

Christie said he is still looking into the episode and will take action against other senior staff members if warranted.

Some Republicans defended the governor, who faced reporters for nearly two hours Thursday and then traveled to Fort Lee, a borough near the entrance to the bridge, to personally apologize to the mayor and community residents. Documents show that Christie's aides appeared to close the lanes to punish the mayor for refusing to endorse Christie during his recent re-election campaign.

"He apologized, took full responsibility and acted decisively in firing those responsible," said Fred Malek, a top Republican financial donor. "If anything, it serves to reinforce his image as a strong and effective governor."

The issue is far from over for Christie.

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