TRENTON, N.J. (AP) — This was supposed to be a month of celebration for New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie's political future.
But after personal messages revealed that his administration may have closed highway lanes to exact political retribution, the prospective Republican presidential candidate is faced with what may be the biggest test of his political career.
Wednesday's revelations thrust a regional transportation issue into a national conversation raising new questions about the ambitious governor's leadership on the eve of a second term designed to jumpstart his road to the White House.
The critics quickly emerged across New Jersey and beyond, high-profile Democrats and Republicans among them, including some who know the 51-year-old governor best.
"What are these people doing?" asked a baffled former New Jersey Republican Gov. Tom Kean, whom Christie has often described as a mentor. "The closer to the governor this is, the more harm that it's going to do."
Emails and text messages released Wednesday suggest that one of Christie's top aides engineered traffic jams in a New Jersey town last September to punish its Democratic mayor. The messages do not directly implicate Christie, but they appear to contradict his assertions that the closings were not punitive and that his staff was not involved.
An "outraged and deeply saddened" Christie responded late in the day by saying he was misled by his aide, and he denied involvement.
"This completely inappropriate and unsanctioned conduct was made without my knowledge," he said in a written statement. "People will be held responsible for their actions."
The messages that prompted Christie's response were obtained by The Associated Press and other news organizations amid a statehouse investigation into whether the lane closings that led to the tie-ups were retribution against the mayor of Fort Lee for not endorsing Christie for re-election last fall.