GOP presidential candidate Donald Trump, left, and New Jersey governor Chris Christie (Jeff Siner/Charlotte Observer/TNS/Newscom)
In my last column, I discussed the possibility that New Jersey Governor Chris Christie could become U.S. attorney general if Donald Trump wins the election. After all, he was the first major Republican presidential candidate to endorse Trump. With Christie’s popularity in his home state dropping to historic lows (now below 30 percent) and term limits foreclosing another run for governor, he had to do something to salvage his political ambitions.
Sure, he didn’t get the vice-presidential nomination that he reportedly craved. But shouldn’t he reap some reward for his remarkable public scenes with Trump? In one, Christie appeared to be physically ill—or a hostage. In another, Trump mocked him to get a cheap laugh.
About That Bridgegate Thing
The prospect of Christie becoming the nation’s top law enforcement officer isn’t funny. The Bridgegate trial ended with guilty verdicts Friday against two of Christie’s former aides, Bridget Anne Kelly and Bill Baroni. The trial resurrected old questions that a Christie-appointed independent investigator was supposed to answer almost three years ago. It also raised new ones.
Christie has steadfastly denied having any knowledge about the George Washington Bridge lane closures before or during the 2013 scandal that culminated in Friday’s verdict. But his aides swore at the trial that Christie knew more than he has admitted.
In that respect, they have confirmed Donald Trump’s declaration during a December 2015 Republican primary rally: “He knew about it. He totally knew about it.”
The Four Other Key Players
In a federal courtroom on Sept. 27, 2016, a senior official at the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey (and Christie’s high school classmate), David Wildstein, testified that Christie knew what was happening on the bridge during the days that traffic was backed up for hours. According to Wildstein, so did Bill Stepien (Christie’s then-gubernatorial re-election campaign manager) and Bill Baroni (the governor’s top appointee at the Port Authority, which runs the bridge).
Another courtroom bombshell exploded on Oct. 21, 2016, when Kelly—who had replaced Stepien as Christie’s deputy chief of staff—testified that on Aug. 12, 2013, she’d told the governor about the contemplated lane closings a month before they occurred.
Someone is lying. Donald Trump cast his vote: the culprit is Christie, the person who now heads his presidential transition team.
I’ve written previously about the independent investigation that was supposed to put all of this to rest almost three years ago. In January 2014, Christie—a former federal prosecutor with eyes on a 2016 presidential bid—tried to contain the growing scandal by appointing a respected attorney to investigate. He chose Randy Mastro, another former prosecutor, who had served as Mayor Rudy Giuliani’s deputy from 1993 to 1998 before returning to the New York office of Gibson, Dunn & Crutcher.
Mastro’s team included Debra Wong Yang, who had served as U.S. attorney for the central district of California. At a June 2011 event, she introduced Christie as her “very good friend” whom she had “known for ten years” – going back to their time together as federal prosecutors. Yang said he was “the real deal” and “doing a remarkable job as governor.” When Christie took the stage, he recalled how their families vacationed together at the game ranch of a fellow U.S. attorney in Texas.
Only two months after the 2014 Gibson Dunn investigation began, Mastro released his final report. It identified Wildstein and Kelly as the Bridgegate villains. Both of them—along with Baroni and Stepien—had refused to speak with investigators.
The report discussed briefly a key moment: the conversation that Wildstein said he’d had with Christie and Bill Baroni at a 9/11 memorial service in New York City—two days into the four-day lane closures. According to his attorney, Wildstein told Christie about the lane closures and resulting traffic problems in Fort Lee. Christie said he couldn’t recall any such conversation. The report dismissed Wildstein’s account as not credible.
The investigation was expensive, but not for Christie. Through August 2015, Gibson Dunn billed New Jersey taxpayers $8 million for its work. According to the Times, in December 2015, Debra Wong Yang, “co-hosted a $2,700-per-person fund-raiser in Los Angeles for Christie’s Republican presidential campaign.”
Days of Reckoning
Fast-forward to Sept. 23, 2016, when prosecutors called Wildstein to the witness stand. Using photos showing Christie, Baroni, and Wildstein speaking together at the 9/11 event, Wildstein testified to their conversation. He said that Baroni began by telling the governor in a sardonic tone that “there was a tremendous amount of traffic in Fort Lee” and that Christie would be “very pleased to know” that the Democratic mayor of the city was “very frustrated.” According to Wildstein, Christie laughed at the news. Upon learning that Fort Lee’s mayor was placing urgent phone calls about the situation, Christie said sarcastically, “I imagine he wouldn’t get his calls returned.”
Christie responded immediately to Wildstein’s courtroom testimony.
“All kinds of stuff is going on up in a courtroom in Newark,” he said on Sept. 27. “I have not and will not say anything different than I’ve been saying since January 2014. No matter what is said up there, I had no knowledge prior to or during these lane realignments.”
Subsequently, Baroni took the stand and offered his version of the 9/11 memorial service conversation with Christie. He said that the photo of the three men laughing might have captured their joking about Governor Andrew Cuomo arriving at the event on a motorcycle with singer Billy Joel.
But then Kelly testified to having informed Christie about the planned lane closings a month before they occurred in 2013. And she added a kicker: She said that the governor stopped by her office after the 9/11 event, and they discussed the ongoing Fort Lee traffic complaints. She swore that Christie told her that the Port Authority and Wildstein were handling the situation.
The judge instructed the Bridgegate jury that Chistie was among those about whom the jury had heard but would render no decision. Friday’s verdict doesn’t resolve the question of whether Christie has been telling the truth about what he knew and when he knew it.
But that open issue is less important than how all of this relates to Donald Trump. He believes Christie is lying. Yet Christie still chairs the Trump presidential transition team. And he could become Trump’s leading candidate for attorney general.
One more twist in the tale: On Jan. 9, 2014, Christie announced that Bill Stepien’s conduct relating to Bridgegate had caused him to “lose confidence in Bill’s judgment,” so he fired him as gubernatorial re-election campaign manager. On Aug. 26, 2016, NBC News reported that the Trump campaign hired Stepien as its national field director.
“I hire only the best people,” Trump says.