New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie was unequivocal in his condemnation of the actions taken by some of his staffers last fall to exact political retribution by closing George Washington Bridge traffic lanes and causing major backups, but he continued to deny any prior knowledge of the plot in a press conference Thursday.
Christie began by apologizing to the people of Fort Lee and New Jersey, and said he would be traveling to Fort Lee later Thursday to repeat his sentiment directly to the most affected community.
"I am embarrassed and humiliated by the conduct of some of the people on my team," Christie said.
The potential Republican 2016 presidential candidate deftly tried to mitigate any negative press from the incident, which boiled over Wednesday when damning emails were revealed in New Jersey's The Record, showing the role that Christie's deputy chief of staff, Bridget Anne Kelly, played in plotting the traffic jam. Christie, who at times had mocked reporters for asking questions about the possibility that the closures were politically motivated, acknowledged he should have done a better job "to understand the true nature of the problem sooner than I did."
"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. "I would never have come out here and made a joke about these lane closures if I had ever had an inkling that anyone on my staff would have been so stupid but to be involved and then so deceitful to not disclose the information of their involvement when directly asked by their superior."
Christie said he fired Kelly Thursday morning for lying to him and has asked Bill Stepien, his former campaign manager, to withdraw from taking over as New Jersey Republican Party chairman. Christie also said he advised against the Republican Governors Association – of which Christie serves as chairman – using Stepien as a political consultant.
The New Jersey governor, who has cultivated a reputation as a brash, straight-talking pol, said he is continuing to hold one-on-one discussions with his staff about what happened and why, and that he may yet take more disciplinary action. Meanwhile, the New Jersey U.S. attorney has said he is opening an investigation into the matter.
"Ultimately I am responsible for what happens under my watch, the good and the bad, and when mistakes are made then I have to own up to them," Christie said during his lengthy press conference.
While using a fairly contrite tone throughout, Christie repeatedly denied any role in the controversy.
"I had no knowledge or involvement in this issue, in its planning or its execution, and I am stunned by the abject stupidity that was shown here," he said. "This was handled in a callous and indifferent way and it is not the way this administration has conducted itself over the last four years."
The scandal threatens to mar Christie's greatest political asset: the trust voters have that he's being straight with them. But his deft handling of the fallout – and its coming well ahead of any actual presidential politicking – likely means he will be able to survive any permanent reputational setback the scandal has temporarily caused.
Unless, of course, there's still more to the story.