Gov. Chris Christie of New Jersey on Tuesday. Mel Evans/Associated Press

Gov. Chris Christie of New Jersey has built a remarkable brand in Republican politics around a simple message: that his bluster and brashness, grating as they might be, were driven by a desire to transcend partisan rancor and petty politics in the service of the public good.

He would never let himself engage, he once pledged, in the “type of deceitful political trickery that has gone on in this state for much too long.”

But embarrassing revelations about his office’s role in shutting down some access lanes to the George Washington Bridge now imperil that carefully cultivated image. They suggest that the same elbows-out approach that the Christie administration brought to policy battles at the State House may have been deployed for a much less noble end — punishing an entire borough for its mayor’s sin of not embracing the governor’s re-election campaign.

For Mr. Christie, the timing of the blossoming scandal is dreadful, disrupting a highly anticipated plan to present the popular governor to the national electorate as a no-nonsense, bipartisan balm to a deeply divided federal government.

OPEN Document

Document: Emails Between Top Christie Aides and Port Authority Officials

The usually verbose and swaggering Mr. Christie, who once mocked questions from reporters about the abrupt closing of lanes to the bridge, seemed at a loss for how to respond on Wednesday.

As the drip-drip of internal documents intensified, he hunkered down in his Trenton office, canceling his sole public event, postponing long-planned interviews with local reporters and waiting seven hours before issuing a written statement expressing his own anger over the matter.

But by the end of the day, both Democratic and Republican leaders were seizing on the case’s growing links to the governor’s office, zeroing in on crude emails in which one of the governor’s top deputies and a high-level Christie appointee at the Port Authority seemed to celebrate their role in creating gridlock for residents of Fort Lee, N.J.

On Thursday morning, Mr. Christie said he would hold a news conference at 11 a.m. to address the controversy.

Despite Mr. Christie’s claims to the contrary, many saw an inescapable link to the temperamental governor, whose emotional outbursts at those who challenge him in public are a hallmark of his governing style.

Several leading conservatives, long suspicious of Mr. Christie’s allegiance to their cause, seemed eager to pounce. “The point of the story is that Christie will do payback,” Rush Limbaugh said on his popular conservative radio show. “If you don’t give him what he wants, he’ll pay you back.”

The episode is tricky for Mr. Christie and his aides. His cantankerous manner and independent streak are essential to his White House ambitions; advisers view them as an asset in early primary states like New Hampshire that have a history of embracing blunt-talking politicians.

Now there is a new worry: that what once seemed like a refreshing forcefulness may come off as misguided bullying.

“We like mavericks here,” said Thomas D. Rath, a longtime political strategist in New Hampshire. “But there is a line.”

Mr. Christie has seemed on the verge of crossing that line in the past, like when he shouted down a voter at a town hall-style meeting in New Hampshire for Mitt Romney’s 2012 presidential campaign.

The concept of a governor whose top aides mete out political revenge by triggering a giant traffic jam “could be a problem” for people in the state, said Mr. Rath, who has advised the Republican presidential campaigns of Bob Dole, George W. Bush and Mr. Romney.

Timeline of Events

Aug. 13, 2013 00:00 AM

Bridget Anne Kelly, a deputy chief of staff to Gov. Chris Christie, emails David Wildstein, Mr. Christie’s close friend and appointee at the Port Authority, which controls the bridge. “Time for some traffic problems in Fort Lee,” she wrote.

Sep. 9, 2013 00:00 AM

Local access lanes to the George Washington Bridge on the New Jersey side were abruptly closed from Sept. 9-13, gridlocking Fort Lee. On the second day, Mayor Mark Sokolich sends a text message to Bill Baroni, the deputy executive director of the Port Authority, pleading for help with his gridlocked city. “The bigger problem is getting kids to school. Help please. It’s maddening,” Mr. Sokolich writes, according to the released documents.

Sep. 14, 2013 00:00 AM

In a brief email statement, Sean Coleman, a spokesperson for the Port Authority, claims the lane closings were related to a traffic study. "The Port Authority has conducted a week of study at the... bridge of traffic-safety patterns," Mr. Coleman wrote.

Sep. 17, 2013 00:00 AM

Mr. Sokolich reaches out to Mr. Baroni. According to the released documents, Mr. Sokolich says: “We should talk. Someone needs to tell me that the recent traffic debacle was not punitive in nature. The last four reporters that contacted me suggest that the people they are speaking with absolutely believe it to be punishment. Try as I may to dispel these rumors I am having a tough time."

Oct. 2, 2013 00:00 AM

John Wisniewski, a New Jersey state assemblymen, says he will convene a hearing next month to probe the lane closings and financial issues surrounding a record toll increase the Port Authority imposed at the George Washington Bridge. "I think the old adage that 'if it walks like a duck and sounds like a duck,' applies here," Mr. Wisniewski said of the lane closings, according to The Star Ledger.

Nov. 25, 2013 00:00 AM

Mr. Baroni testifies before the Assembly Transportation Committee, acknowledging that the agency failed to communicate about the closings but did not explain why the agency did not follow normal procedures before a major traffic disruption. Mr. Baroni also explains that it was Mr. Wildstein who ordered the closings, the first time an agency representative was publicly identified for ordering the mysterious lane closings, which caused three-hour backups.

Dec. 7, 2013 00:00 AM

Mr. Wildstein writes in a letter to Mr. Baroni that he will resign as the director of interstate capital projects at the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey on Jan. 1. Mr. Wildstein says in the letter that the lane-closing issue had become “a distraction.”

Dec. 9, 2013 00:00 AM

The inspector general of the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey opens an investigation into the lane closings, and the actions of Mr. Wildstein.

Dec. 12, 2013 00:00 AM

According to a report in The Wall Street Journal, Mr. Christie calls Gov. Andrew Cuomo to complain that Patrick Foye, the executive director of the Port Authority and a Cuomo appointee, was pressing too hard to get to the bottom of why the number of toll lanes onto the bridge from Fort Lee was cut from three to one in early September.

Dec. 13, 2013 00:00 AM

Facing reporters to announce the resignation of Mr. Baroni, Mr. Christie says the fuss about Mr. Wildstein and Mr. Baroni having ordered that lanes leading to the George Washington Bridge be shut — and whether they had done it to punish Fort Lee’s mayor for failing to endorse Mr. Christie — had been “sensationalized.”

Jan. 8, 2014 00:00 AM

Newly obtained emails show that a deputy chief of staff to Mr. Christie gave a signal to close lanes to the George Washington Bridge, in what appeared to be political retribution.

“Passion has to be tempered by courtesy,” he said. “It shouldn’t be about getting back at people.”

The recent contretemps is especially jarring because it revolves around nakedly partisan score-settling against the Democratic mayor of Fort Lee, the kind of behavior that Mr. Christie has forsworn at every turn.

Bipartisanship has become a byword of his administration, turning his news conferences into celebrations of his ability to reach across the aisle.

“Our bipartisan accomplishments in New Jersey have helped set the tone that has taken hold across many other states,” Mr. Christie has said, and he routinely scolds lawmakers in Washington for failing to follow his lead.

Even if he played no direct role in the lane closures, his administration has lost some of its post-partisan luster. “It’s always hard for anti-politicians when voters find out they have to be politicians, too,” said Alex Castellanos, an adviser to Mr. Romney in his 2008 campaign.

And while thus far the story has only entangled the governor’s aides, and not the governor — the newly released emails included messages from Mr. Christie’s campaign manager and statehouse press secretary — any indication that his denials of involvement were less than truthful could do deep damage to his straight-shooting reputation.

Still, Mr. Castellanos said he doubted the controversy would inflict lasting harm to Mr. Christie’s reputation outside of New Jersey.

National Democrats did everything they could on Wednesday to ensure that it would. The Democratic National Committee blasted out a scorching Web video about the lane closures. It showed Mr. Christie indignantly denying that his staff had a hand in the decision, and the committee’s chairwoman, Debbie Wasserman Schultz, played up the danger the road changes posed to families in the state.

The danger for Mr. Christie, according to Patrick Murray, the director of the Monmouth University Polling Institute, is that Republican Party donors on the fence about the governor will find new reasons to doubt his viability as the party’s standard-bearer.

“It plays into a narrative,” he said. “That party leaders and donors don’t know everything about Christie that they need to know.”

In New Jersey, there were already signs of a remade political landscape. A few days ago, the incoming speaker of the State Assembly, Vincent Prieto, stood side by side with Mr. Christie at an elementary school auditorium, praising him for collaborating with Democrats and Republicans on a piece of legislation.

On Wednesday, Mr. Prieto, a Democrat, issued a different kind of message: He vowed that the Legislature’s investigation into the lane closings would extend well into the new year.

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