The long, slow fall of New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, from brash tell-it-like-it-is frontrunner for the Republican presidential nomination to designated liar for the man who ultimately deprived him of that honor, may be nearing its end. If an accusation made in open court by a federal prosecutor on Monday is true, jurors in the trial of two former Christie aides will soon hear testimony casting doubt on Christie’s claims of complete innocence in the controversial “Bridgegate” case from 2013.
The case involves the politically motivated closing of several access lanes to the George Washington Bridge in the town of Fort Lee, N.J. The bridge is a key artery for commuters heading into New York City, and the closure of all but one access lane flooded the town with crippling traffic, stranding not just commuters but buses full of schoolchildren and emergency first-response vehicles in hours-long traffic jams.
An investigation into the closure would later reveal that they were wholly unnecessary -- not part of a “traffic study” as officials would try to claim -- and were motivated purely by political revenge-seeking. The mayor of Fort Lee, Democrat Mark Sokolich, had declined to endorse Christie for reelection at a time when the governor was trying to burnish his reputation as a politician who could work across party lines.
That led to the infamous text from former Christie deputy chief of staff Bridget Anne Kelly to David Wildstein, a Christie appointee at the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, which manages the bridge, that it was “time for some traffic problems in Fort Lee.”
Yesterday, in the opening of the trial of Kelly and Bill Baroni, former deputy executive director of the Port Authority, federal prosecutor Vikas Khanna revealed that Wildstein will testify that he and Baroni “bragged” to Christie about the closures as they were happening.
If true, it doesn’t signal that Christie actually ordered the closures. However, it would mean that he not only knew about them and did nothing to stop them, but that he also failed to discipline his employees and at least one appointee for an egregious abuse of power and violation of the law.
After the involvement of Kelly and Baroni became public, Christie fired her and Baroni resigned. He then held a marathon news conference, fielding questions from reporters in which he suggested that he had been betrayed by his staff and knew nothing about the plot to punish Sokolich.
While Christie’s public reputation was stained by the scandal, it didn’t prevent him from mounting a presidential campaign marked by high-volume moralizing and aggressive attacks on his fellow candidates for their past and current failings.
When his campaign came to an end earlier this year, Christie shocked many inside and outside the Republican Party by becoming the first high-profile elected Republican to endorse Donald Trump for the presidency. The move earned him special status with the billionaire former reality television star who would go on to secure the nomination. Christie was viewed as a possible vice presidential candidate, but that dream was squashed by the threat of a resurfacing of the Bridgegate scandal. Instead, Christie took over leadership of Trump’s transition team and appeared to be on the short list for a senior post in a Trump administration.
The fact that federal prosecutors now believe that he had knowledge of the bridge closure as it was ongoing didn’t seem to bother Trump. (Indeed, during the primary election Trump said that he believes Christie knew about it all along.)
“I have known and liked Chris for 15 years,” Mr. Trump said. “After his recent run for president, he called me to say that he would like to endorse me in that he sees a movement like he has never seen before. I was greatly honored, accepted his endorsement, and he has been a spectacular advocate ever since.”