Christie apologizes, fires aide in traffic scandal

Gov. Christie apologizes to people of New Jersey & Ft. Lee
Gov. Christie apologizes to people of New Jersey & Ft. Lee

His presidential ambitions on the line, Gov. Chris Christie fired a top aide and apologized on Thursday, saying he is "embarrassed and humiliated" by the politically motivated lane closures on the George Washington Bridge that caused a traffic nightmare for days.

Christie said he would go to Fort Lee later Thursday to apologize personally to Democratic Mayor Mark Sokolich and the residents.

Initially, Sokolich said at a news conference said Christie shouldn't come to town, saying the trip would be disruptive to school children, but soon relented.

Also Thursday, the U.S. Attorney's Office of New Jersey confirmed to CNBC that it was beginning a preliminary inquiry into the case "to determine whether a federal law was implicated."

At a news conference in Trenton, Christie said he was unaware until Wednesday of emails and texts that showed a top staff in his office had been involved in the scheme to disrupt Fort Lee, whose mayor didn't endorse Christie in his bid for re-election as Republican governor. The lanes were closed, supposedly for a traffic study, for four days in September, two months before the November election.

Ft. Lee's mayor responds to possible Christie visit
Ft. Lee's mayor responds to possible Christie visit

As part of his presidential hopes, Christie had been trying to show he could avoid petty political disputes and work with Democrats, as he did with President Barack Obama in the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy.

The messages were published Wednesday. Earlier, Christie had said he was unaware of the decision to close lanes on the bridge as part of a traffic study.

'Embarrassed and humiliated'

"I am embarrassed and humiliated by the conduct of some of the people on my team. There's no doubt in mind that the conduct that they exhibited is completely unacceptable and showed a lack of respect for their appropriate role of government and for the people that we're trusted to serve," Christie told reporters.

At the news conference, he announced the firing of Bridget Anne Kelly, as deputy chief of staff. Her email "Time for some traffic problems in Fort Lee" served as evidence that Christie's office was involved in the revenge closure.

New Jersey Governor Chris Christie and Deputy Chief of Staff Bridget Anne Kelly (R).
Phil Stilton | Getty Images

He has also asked his former campaign manager, Bill Stepien, to remove his name from being state GOP chairman and to withdraw his consultancy with the Republican Governors Association, which Christie now chairs.

Christie also said he will hold one-on-one discussions with other members of his senior staff to see if there is additional information he needs to know.

(Read more: Mayor: Christie should apologize for bridge scandal)

"I take this action today because it's my job. I am responsible for what happened. I am sad to report to the people of New Jersey that we fell short, fell short of the expectations that we created, for excellence in this office," he said, adding that he was stunned by the "abject stupidity" that was shown.

"Ultimately, I am responsible for what happens on my watch—the good and the bad. And when mistakes are made, I have to own up to them and take the action that I believe is necessary in order to remediate them," he added.

Implications for 2016

The revelation that top staff in Christie's office was involved in the traffic scandal has drawn national attention, bringing unwelcome and negative attention to Christie, who's considered a top contender for the 2016 Republican presidential nominee.

Earlier on CNBC's "Squawk on the Street", former Pennsylvania Gov. Ed Rendell said if Christie did not know about the intentional bridge closure, then he "looks like an administrator who's totally lost control of his office and his staff."

Gov. Christie: Heartbroken & betrayed by staff
Gov. Christie: Heartbroken & betrayed by staff

"If he lies about it today and the truth comes out, that's absolutely disastrous, and I think any presidential ambition is over," Rendell said on CNBC's "Squawk on the Street."

But Fred Malek, finance chairman of the Republican Governors Association, called Christie "a man of character" and "decisive leadership."

"He's in the middle of running one the biggest states in the country. He's in the middle of running a re-election campaign," Malek told CNBC. "He's not going to be knowing about what somebody several levels down did or took the conduct they engaged in."

Christie: I'm tough, not a bully
Christie: I'm tough, not a bully

In an interview on CNBC Wednesday, Fort Lee's mayor said Christie should apologize to the people who suffered through the traffic jams.

(Read more: Mayor: Christie should apologize for bridge scandal)

"If (apology) calls are going to be made, call the families that waited two to three times longer for an ambulance to arrive while their loved one was clutching their chest because of chest pains," Sokolich said. "Call the thousands of parents that couldn't get their kids to school on time on the first day of school and the three or four days thereafter."

—By CNBC.com's Katie Little. Follow her on Twitter @KatieLittle