TRENTON, N.J. — Reasserting himself publicly a day after his handpicked lawyers cleared him of involvement in September's massive George Washington Bridge traffic jam, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie vowed Friday to reform the agency that controls the area's bridges — even as he defended the departing chairman, a longtime ally.
Attorney David Samson, a close ally of Christie and a fixture in New Jersey politics for decades, submitted his resignation effective immediately, Christie announced as he met reporters at the statehouse here for the first time since the bridge scandal erupted onto the national stage in January.
Christie, a Republican, said that he didn't ask for the resignation and remained confident that Samson wasn't involved in the decision to shut down local access lanes to the bridge in September, creating a monumental traffic jam in Fort Lee, N.J.
Christie has used the report's release to go on a mini media blitz to resurrect his status as a potential presidential contender. He acknowledged that the scandal had hurt his standing in the polls in New Jersey and nationally, but said it was too early for that to mean anything. And he suggested that voters outside the New Jersey region weren't paying much attention to the bridge scandal anyway.
The traffic jam occurred as he was en route to reelection in November; since then, the 2016 presidential campaign he had been expected to wage has seemed a more distant possibility.
The report, completed by lawyers hired by Christie at taxpayers' expense, concluded that the bridge scheme was hatched by two midlevel aides without Christie or anyone else in his office knowing about it. The report, written without interviews with the central players in the drama — they declined to cooperate — was immediately criticized as a whitewash by Democrats, who are leading their own investigation. In a statement, the legislative committee said Samson's resignation and his refusal to be interviewed left "far more questions than answers."
But Christie defended the review, saying that he had confidence in its authors.
"These are six former federal prosecutors who I can guarantee you have worked hard to develop the reputations that they've earned over the course of their career and would not give away those reputations to do some type of slipshod job for me," he said.
Yet he said he remained in the dark about the reasons for the traffic shutdown, which the report blamed on political retaliation. Bridget Anne Kelly, Christie's deputy chief of staff at the time, and David Wildstein, a Christie loyalist who was serving at the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, were blamed for cooking up the lane closures to punish Fort Lee Mayor Mark Sokolich, a Democrat who had declined to endorse Christie. Wildstein resigned in December and Kelly was fired by Christie in January.
"It mystifies me on every level why this was done," Christie said. "And I hope someday to have an answer to why it was done. But I certainly don't have a crystal ball and I can't tell you if or when I'll ever know. But do I hope to? After all this, you bet I hope to."
Samson's law firm has a large profile in New Jersey government and development, and has drawn increasing scrutiny and suggestions of possible conflicts between his post at the Port Authority and his private interests. The Democratic mayor of Hoboken, Dawn Zimmer, said top officials in Christie's administration leaned on her to support a project planned by one of the Samson firm's clients; the internal report said there was no evidence to support that allegation.
Christie said that Samson, 74, wanted to resign a year ago and that he had talked him into staying on then.
"I have complete confidence that he acquitted himself in a way that was appropriate and ethical," he said.
In a statement, Samson said: "The timing is now right, and I am confident that the governor will put new leadership in place to address the many challenges ahead."
Christie said Samson told him he thought it was necessary for him to step down so that Christie could move quickly to reform the dysfunctional two-state agency, which for years has been known for mismanagement and as a haven for patronage jobs. Christie, who vetoed a reform measure passed by the state Legislature in 2012, said he would consider splitting the authority.
The appearance, Christie's first news conference in 76 days, was marked by his usual signs of irritation toward reporters, who have hammered away at the governor since the scandal dubbed "Bridgegate" broke.
"I'd love to say I missed you, but I didn't," he said.
"I don't know whether you can't take notes or you're not listening," he said to one reporter, and ripped into another: "You have to get the facts right if you're going to ask me a question."
Christie said the scandal had shaken his confidence because he was responsible for hiring Kelly and Wildstein.
"There's no question that this shakes your confidence. And if it doesn't shake your confidence, then you're arrogant," he said. "I mean, you know, some people that I had believed in and had confidence in let me down."
In a statement on Friday afternoon, Kelly's lawyer, Michael Critchley, said that Kelly would be happy to tell her version of events, but only to the U.S. attorney's office with "appropriate procedural safeguards." The statement criticized Christie attorney Randy Mastro for his depiction of Kelly in the report.
"Ms. Kelly is not a liar. She is a single mother of four children who was deeply devoted" to Christie, he said.
In an interview set to air later Friday on Fox News, Christie referred to the aides by saying that he had "made a mistake in judging their judgment and their character."
"I admit that mistake and I'm sorry that it happened," he said. "But I can't, when I work with human beings, be held to a standard of perfection in them and in me."
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