One question has always loomed large over the legal drama surrounding Bridgegate: Did Chris Christie know about the political motivation for lane closures that ground traffic on the New Jersey side of the George Washington Bridge to a standstill as they happened in the fall of 2013?
Three years later, the trial for two of his former allies accused of orchestrating the lane closures is in full swing—and the evidence that the New Jersey governor did know is mounting.
In his own telling, Christie believed his allies’ explanation that the lane closures were the result of a traffic study until the document dump that made “Time for some traffic problems” a go-to joke for political junkies blew the scandal wide open in January 2014. But both the prosecution and the defense in the case agree that Christie knew about the plot as it was happening, and new testimony from Christie’s self-described former “enforcer” at the Port Authority, in addition to other statements from former aides, contradict what the governor has said about what he knew and when.
The governor was never charged in connection with the plot, for which Christie’s former deputy chief of staff, Bridget Anne Kelly, and another of his former Port Authority appointees, Bill Baroni, face fraud and corruption charges. During opening arguments in their trial on Sept. 19, assistant U.S. Attorney Vikas Kanna alleged that Christie allies “bragged” to him about the traffic problems in Fort Lee, New Jersey and told him the town’s mayor “was not getting his calls returned.”
In the ensuing days, David Wildstein, the Port Authority official who struck a plea deal for his own involvement as the mastermind behind Bridgegate, took the stand to tell for the first time his account of how Christie learned about the elaborate plot to exact revenge on Fort Lee’s Democratic mayor, who declined to endorse the governor’s re-election. Wildstein alleged that he and Baroni boasted of the “tremendous amount of traffic” in Fort Lee while chatting with Christie at a 9/11 memorial event three days after the bridge lanes were first closed.
Wildstein testified that the governor spoke sarcastically about the situation and joked about Wildstein’s former gig as a political blogger who wrote under the pseudonym “Wally Edge.”
“Well, I’m sure Mr. Edge would not be involved in anything that’s political,” Christie said, according to Wildstein.
Asked by assistant U.S. Attorney Lee Cortes if he and Baroni had been “bragging” to Christie, Wildstein gave an enthusiastic yes.
“Yes, very much so,” Wildstein said, according to Philly.com. “This was our one constituent. I was pleasing my one constituent…I was happy that he was happy.”
Port Authority photos shown to the jury by the prosecution show the trio huddled together at the 9/11 memorial service at Ground Zero, sharing a laugh.
(From left: Baroni, Christie, Wildstein)
(From left: Christie, former Port Authority chief David Samson, Baroni)
Christie has maintained that he does not recall that conversation and that he knew nothing about the lane closures until he read about them in the press “well after the whole thing was over,” in either late September or early October 2013. Even then, Christie said his allies explained the lanes were closed as part of a study of traffic patterns on the bridge.
On Tuesday, Wildstein also testified that in October 2013 Christie and New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D) “discussed” releasing a report that would “put an end” to questions about the lane closures. Cuomo’s office adamantly denied that conversation took place or that he collaborated in any sort of cover-up.
Christie repeated to the press last week that he has told the “absolute truth” about his knowledge of the scandal.
“I have not and will not say anything differently than I’ve been saying since January 2014, no matter what is said up there (in Newark federal court),” Christie told reporters on Sept. 27. “I had no knowledge prior to or during these lane realignments, I had no role in authorizing it, I had no knowledge of it, and there’s been no evidence ever put forward that I did.”
Wildstein is not the only source of evidence suggesting the governor may have known about the Bridgegate plot as it unfolded, however. A lawyer representing Christie’s former campaign manager, Bill Stepien, revealed last year that his client was informed of the lane closure scheme in summer 2013 and had told the governor about it on Dec. 12, 2013, just one day before Christie was slated to give his first major press conference about the lane closures.
Wildstein testified last week that he told Stepien about the plan less than 24 hours after it was hatched. Stepien, who was never charged in the case, was recently hired by Donald Trump’s presidential campaign.
Documents surfaced shortly before the Bridgegate trial kicked off also showed a former Christie aide suggesting the governor knew his staff was involved in the scheme.
In August, Baroni’s lawyers released transcripts of a text message exchange between Christina Renna, Christie’s former director of intergovernmental affairs, and a staffer on Christie’s re-election campaign in which Renna says Christie “flat out lied” to the media about not knowing his own staffers played a role in the lane closures.
“He just flat out lied about senior staff and Stepien not being involved,” Renna wrote in the since-deleted messages, which she sent as the governor assured the media at the December 2013 press conference that neither he nor his staff were involved in any politically-motivated scheme.
Christie has insisted that he didn’t know any of his staffers were involved until copies of their emails were made public in January 2014 among a batch of subpoenaed documents from the state legislature’s investigation into the lane closures, prompting him to fire Kelly and ask Stepien to step down.
But even Donald Trump, whose White House transition team Christie now heads up, found that hard to believe.
Campaigning in South Carolina in December during the Republican primaries, Trump said of Christie, “The George Washington Bridge, he knew about it.”
“They’re with him all the time, the people that did it,” Trump continued. “They never said, ‘Hey, boss, we’re closing up the George Washington Bridge tonight.’ They never said it? They’re talking about the weather, right? He knew about it. He knew about it. Totally knew about it.”