TRENTON, N.J. — New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, a rising star in the Republican party and top contender for the 2016 presidential nomination, will speak publicly for the first time Thursday on the release of emails and text messages that suggest one of his top aides deliberately created traffic jams last year to punish a political rival.
The scandal is being called the biggest test of his political career.
The traffic snarl at one of the world's busiest bridges, which links New Jersey and New York City, caused hours-long backups for commuters and others as children started the school year.
Christie, a blunt, outspoken governor who has worked to create a pragmatic, bipartisan image and contrast it with a bitterly divided Congress, at first dismissed questions about the lane closures with jokes and denied that either he or his staff had been involved.
After the emails and texts were reported Wednesday, he canceled public appearances and several hours later issued a statement saying he was "outraged and deeply saddened" by the revelations. He said he was misled by a key aide and he denied involvement.
He will answer questions at the Statehouse at 1600 GMT.
The revelations raise new questions about his leadership on the eve of his second term designed to jumpstart his road to the White House. In less than two weeks, his second inauguration is planned in the shadow of the Statue of Liberty. He also faces a national travel schedule as chairman of the Republican Governors Association.
Democrats at the national level swiftly circulated the news of the scandal, calling it more evidence that the potential Republican candidate for president in 2016 is a bully. Some conservative Republicans who have been stung by Christie's comments in the past joined in.
Even if Christie navigates this challenge quickly, it will almost surely come back to haunt him in a presidential run, said Republican operative Hogan Gidley.
"I don't necessarily think it's Christie's policy that's going to ultimately catapult or sink his campaign; I think it's his personality," Gidley said.
The email and text messages were obtained by The Associated Press and other news organizations Wednesday amid a statehouse investigation into whether the huge traffic backup was retribution against the mayor of Fort Lee for not endorsing Christie for re-election last fall.
"Time for some traffic problems in Fort Lee," Christie deputy chief of staff Bridget Anne Kelly wrote in August in a message to David Wildstein, a top Christie appointee on the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey. The authority is in charge of the heavily traveled George Washington Bridge.
"Got it," Wildstein replied. A few weeks later, Wildstein closed two of three lanes connecting Fort Lee to the bridge.
The messages do not directly implicate Christie in the shutdown.
"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."
In a statement issued late Wednesday, Christie said: "I am outraged and deeply saddened to learn that not only was I misled by a member of my staff, but this completely inappropriate and unsanctioned conduct was made without my knowledge."
Fort Lee Mayor Mark Sokolich, a Democrat, called it "appalling" that the traffic jams appear to have been engineered.
Sokolich said the gridlock put people in danger by holding up emergency vehicles, and he added that those responsible should resign.
Associated Press writers Katie Zezima in Newark, New Jersey, and Steve Peoples in Washington contributed.