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Christie drops swagger amid heat of scandal

By Leigh Ann Caldwell, CNN
updated 11:23 PM EST, Thu January 9, 2014
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • NEW: Documents to be released are from a former Christie ally, an official says
  • More than 1,000 pages of documents are to be released Friday morning, official says
  • Fort Lee mayor tells CNN that he believes more still to come in scandal
  • Governor says he is "embarrassed and humiliated" by conduct of aides

(CNN) -- New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie's usual swagger and bluster were gone.

In its place Thursday was an apologetic and contrite Christie trying to control an unfolding political scandal that has upended his administration over news one of his top aides and a political ally targeted a mayor with a scheme to tie up traffic in his town as punishment for not supporting their boss for re-election.

"I am who I am, but I am not a bully," Christie said during a nearly two-hour press conference where he distanced himself from the actions, saying "I knew nothing about this" and he had "nothing to hide."

But even as Christie worked to minimize the damage that could mean big problems should he run for President, the fallout could mount with word the New Jersey State Assembly committee looking into the scandal plans on Friday to release nearly 1,000 pages of documents collected in its investigation.

New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie is embroiled in unfolding controversies over alleged political payback. The primary scandal involves suggestions key aides and supporters orchestrated traffic gridlock around the George Washington Bridge in Fort Lee last year to punish that town's mayor for not endorsing Christie's reelection. A separate controversy involves a federal watchdog's review of whether Christie improperly used Superstorm Sandy funds to produce tourism ads starring him and his family. New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie is embroiled in unfolding controversies over alleged political payback. The primary scandal involves suggestions key aides and supporters orchestrated traffic gridlock around the George Washington Bridge in Fort Lee last year to punish that town's mayor for not endorsing Christie's reelection. A separate controversy involves a federal watchdog's review of whether Christie improperly used Superstorm Sandy funds to produce tourism ads starring him and his family.
Who's who in Christie bridge scandal
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Fort Lee Mayor accepts Christie apology
Christie: I'm not a bully
Quotes from Christie apology
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Aides and appointees of New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie have been accused of closing lanes on the George Washington Bridge to punish Fort Lee Mayor Mark Sokolich, pictured, for not endorsing Christie for re-election. If true, this wouldn't be the first time an American politician was targeted with dirty tricks -- the practice goes back as far as running for office. Click through to see other examples of less-than-ethical campaign tactics. Aides and appointees of New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie have been accused of closing lanes on the George Washington Bridge to punish Fort Lee Mayor Mark Sokolich, pictured, for not endorsing Christie for re-election. If true, this wouldn't be the first time an American politician was targeted with dirty tricks -- the practice goes back as far as running for office. Click through to see other examples of less-than-ethical campaign tactics.
Political dirty tricks
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What is in those documents may add to the growing legal questions now facing the governor's administration, which is under scrutiny by the U.S. Attorney's office, with the help of FBI investigators, to see if any federal laws were broken, a law enforcement source tells CNN.

Christie's first stop after holding a news conference in Trenton was to the town that was targeted.

"I take him for his word," Fort Lee Mayor Mark Sokolich said on "The Situation Room" about his talk with Christie, who he described as "gracious and apologetic."

One political analyst said the governor checked all the boxes an embattled national political figure must address if he wants to demonstrate credibility in a crisis.

"He stood there and took it," said John King, CNN's chief national correspondent, who noted that Christie was uncharacteristically low key as he appeared to understand the gravity of the moment. "It was a very different Chris Christie."

Christie "stunned"

Hailed as a star within the Republican Party for his direct style that resonates with voters and considered someone with potential White House timber, the no-nonsense Christie is embroiled in an episode worthy of a bad Hollywood script. Top aides captured in e-mails swearing and talking tough about a small town mayor who didn't endorse the boss for re-election.

Their response: use the authority of a transportation agency to alter traffic patterns at the head of the George Washington Bridge, creating days of gridlock in Fort Lee. It might've been shaken off as an embarrassing political stunt, but officials say the tie-ups impacted public safety.

Read the e-mails

Christie's tone and message represented a valiant attempt to disconnect himself from the embarrassing events that have attracted the attention of federal prosecutors, simultaneously pleading ignorance and accepting responsibility.

He said the buck stops with him but emphatically intoned that he had no knowledge of any aspect of the bridge controversy.

"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 said.

Sen. Lesniak: 'This crosses a line'
Mayor: This won't be good for Christie
Chris Christie: Brash or a bully?
Cupp: Christie already known as a bully

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

Legal questions

Some of those answers may rest with the documents to be released by the New Jersey State Assembly committee.

Among the documents expected to be posted online are 907 pages collected in response to the subpoena of former state official David Wildstein, then the highest-level appointee representing the state at the Port Authority, which operates the George Washington Bridge connecting New York and New Jersey, the committee spokesman said.

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.

Fishman's office is working with the FBI's public corruption unit to see if any federal laws were broken, a law enforcement source told CNN.

Does this mean Christie's presidential ambitions are dashed?

"Not necessarily," Oxford University historian Timothy Stanley wrote in an opinion piece for CNN.com. "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."

Christie, meanwhile, is facing legal action from Bergen County residents, who filed a class-action lawsuit Thursday against the governor and his deputy chief of staff, Bridget Anne Kelly, as well as former Port Authority official Bill Baroni and Wildstein, claiming that because of the lane closure of the George Washington Bridge they were stuck in traffic and arrived late to work resulting in loss of wages.

"To find out that the residents and the plaintiffs in this case were pawns in a political game is just disgraceful," Rosemarie Arnold, the attorney representing the six plaintiffs, told CNN.

The plaintiffs are seeking compensatory and punitive damages but the lawsuit did not state a specific dollar amount.

Christie 'blindsided' by e-mails

Christie said he was "blindsided" by the release of the e-mails and text messages on Wednesday that bolstered claims by Democrats that the traffic jams between September 9-13 were meant to punish Sokolich.

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."

On the bridge: 'Those days... like a disaster'

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 and died. She was, however, reached by an ambulance.

Traffic snarl delayed EMS, official says

Further details of the woman's death haven't been released and the mayor told CNN he hopes the traffic tie-ups weren't ultimately a factor.

'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 candidacy in November.

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," Kelly, Christie's deputy chief of staff for legislative and intergovernmental affairs, said in an e-mail to Wildstein.

"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.

Wildstein, who left his job in December as the Christie administration's top appointee on the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, refused to answer questions about the matter before a New Jersey Assembly committee that later held in him contempt.

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 called his meeting with Christie productive and took no satisfaction from the fallout now pummeling the governor and his administration.

Sokolich said during "The Situation Room" interview that "we're concerned there is more stuff and more issues to deal with" regarding the scandal.

Furious in Fort Lee

In Fort Lee, Debbie Minuto watched Christie's apology and said the disruption hurt a lot of people.

"You can't play with our bridge," she said.

Jose Perez said the controversy illustrates the usual state of politics in the Garden State.

"In the end, who pays? he asked "The people. We're the ones who pay for the political gains."

Christie political woes

Bridge firestorm could have bigger impact on Christie

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.

CNN Chief Political Analyst Gloria Borger said 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.

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.

Ron Brownstein, CNN's senior political analyst and the editorial director for the National Journal, said the scandal doesn't necessarily disqualify Christie from running for President. But, he said "this is something that's going to go on."

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, noting that he asked Bill Stepien, a sharp-elbowed strategist who managed Christie's two gubernatorial campaigns, to leave his organization and that he fired Kelly.

In exchanges with Wildstein in the notorious e-mail chain, Stepien described the Fort Lee mayor as an "idiot." The e-mails also suggested that Stepien was aware of the maneuvering by that led to the lane closures.

"This is a huge, huge deal," said one Trenton insider. "This was the governor's guy."

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

"I am not preoccupied with that job," he said.

Other documents raise questions, too

Opinion: Controversy tarnishes Christie's image

CNN's Chelsea J. Carter, Paul Steinhauser, Peter Hamby, Adam Aigner-Treworgy and Ray Sanchez contributed to this report.

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