Top aides to Republican Governor Chris Christie of New Jersey ordered the Port Authority to close several lanes on the George Washington Bridge to deliberately cause gridlock in the town of Fort Lee after its Democratic mayor refused to endorse Christie’s reelection bid, a newly released trove of explosive emails and texts show.
Democrats have contended for weeks that the explanation for the lane closings offered by Christie’s office (that the lane closings were part of a “traffic study”) was a farce and a lie, and the messages released today prove it.
On August 13th, Christie’s deputy chief of staff, Bridget Anne Kelly, sent an email from her Yahoo email address to David Wildstein, a confidant of the governor’s who was given a plum job by Christie ally Bill Baroni, the top political appointee at the Port Authority. “Time for some traffic problems in Fort Lee,” Kelly wrote.
“Got it,” Wildstein replied, from his Gmail account.
Less than a few weeks later, traffic in Fort Lee came to a standstill when, on September 13th (the first day of school), commuters found two of three toll lanes normally dedicated to local traffic inexplicably closed.
Just as Christie’s aides had wanted, Fort Lee became a gridlocked city during rush hour, clogged with seemingly unending traffic jams.
Fort Lee Mayor Mark Sokolich appealed to Baroni for help. In a text message, he wrote, “Presently we have four very busy traffic lanes merging into only one toll booth… The bigger problem is getting kids to school. Help please. It’s maddening.”
In response, Wildstein texted an unknown colleague who was in on the plot to punish Sokolich. “Is it wrong that I am smiling?” Wildstein asked.
“No,” said the other individual.
In another set of texts, Wildstein and another conspirator made light of the traffic jams they had caused. Here is that exchange:
Received, 9/10/2013, 8:05 AM: I feel badly about the kids
Received, 9/10/2013, 8:06 AM: I guess
Sent, 9/10/2013, 8:11 AM: They are the children of Buono voters
Sent, 9/10/2013, 8:13 AM: Bottom line is he didn’t say safety
After officials on the New York side acted to help Fort Lee, Christie’s aides registered their unhappiness that their plot had been foiled.
David Wildstein wrote: “The New York side gave Fort Lee back all three lanes this morning. We are appropriately going nuts. Samson helping us to retaliate.”
Bridget Anne Kelly wrote back, “What??”
Wildstein then replied, “Yes, unreal. Fixed now.”
Christie’s aides must have known that these incriminating messages existed, even if they did not tell their boss (and it seems unlikely he couldn’t have known anything). Yet for weeks, they stupidly tried to explain away the lane closures as having to do with a traffic study… as did Christie himself. They can’t deny now that they tried to fabricate a false rationale for the closures as a cover-up.
“Can you say with certainty that someone else didn’t on your staff or in your administration act on your behalf for the lane closures for political retribution?” Christie was asked last month by a reporter during a press briefing.
“Yeah, I have absolutely no reason to believe that,” Christie responded, adding confidently, “I’ve made it very clear to everybody on my senior staff that if anyone had any knowledge about this that they needed to come forward to me and tell me about it and they’ve all assured me that they don’t.”
On another occasion in December, Christie told reporters that it was “absolutely, unequivocally, not” true that the lane closings had been ordered as political retaliation against the mayor of Fort Lee. It turns out that the allegations made by Democrats are absolutely, unequivocally true.
Christie has said repeatedly that Democrats have been trying to manufacture a scandal where there isn’t one. But it turns out the scandal was manufactured by his own people. They plotted out the lane closings as a way to punish Mayor Sokolich and then they took delight in the mayhem that they had caused.
It would seem Christie’s only way forward now is to clean house. The magnitude of today’s document dump cannot be overstated.
Democrats are already having a field day.
“The latest news in Chris Christie’s bridge scandal indicates political retribution and raises a host of new questions,” said DNC Chairwoman Debbie Wasserman Schultz. “What is crystal clear is that the Governor’s office ordered lane closures that were intended to make first responders experience delays, kids sit gridlocked on the first day of school, and commuters hit log jams, to punish the Democratic mayor who didn’t endorse Chris Christie’s reelection bid.
“These revelations are troubling for any public official, but they also indicate what we’ve come to expect from Governor Christie – when people oppose him, he exacts retribution. When people question him, he belittles and snidely jokes. And when anyone dares to look into his Administration, he bullies and attacks.
“For 121 days, Chris Christie disparaged the questioners and later lied saying no one in his office was involved. That was clearly untrue given the discovery of emails that came directly from his own top staff. Time’s up, Governor.”
The Star-Ledger of New Jersey reports that Barbara Buono, Christie’s Democratic opponent, is calling for a criminal investigation into the scandal, saying the U.S. Department of Justice should investigate.
“It clearly exposes a web of deceit and subterfuge and political retribution leading straight to Chris Christie,” Buono said in remarks published by the newspaper.
“I said it in the campaign and it fell on deaf ears, but this guy’s a charlatan, he’s the worst kind of bully and boss,” she added.
Referring to Christie’s presidential aspirations, she observed, “This is a guy who wants to be trusted overseeing the most formidable military in the world and he can’t be trusted to handle the busiest bridge in the world.”
Bridgegate, as the scandal is now being called, threatens to destroy Chris Christie’s 2016 hopes in addition to undermining his credibility and popularity in New Jersey. There will surely be further revelations and fallout in the weeks to come.
Operatives employed by Christie’s Republican would-be 2016 rivals are probably as satisfied with today’s developments as Democrats are.
If Christie isn’t a credible candidate for the Republican nomination, then he’s out of the picture and it will be easier for one of them to win.
We’re looking forward to seeing how Jon Stewart and Rachel Maddow cover today’s explosive trove of emails and text messages.
UPDATE: Chris Christie’s office has released a statement distancing the governor from the actions of his staff. He claims he didn’t know (just like Nixon!)
What I’ve seen today for the first time is unacceptable. 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.
One thing is clear: this type of behavior is unacceptable and I will not tolerate it because the people of New Jersey deserve better. This behavior is not representative of me or my Administration in any way, and people will be held responsible for their actions.
Not representative of me or my administration? Ha! Sorry, governor, but your credibility is in tatters at this point. You can try to negate the truth, but you can’t bluster your way out of this. You and your staff have been dishonest with the people you claim to proudly represent. Particularly those affected by Bridgegate.
It does sound like heads are going to roll. Baroni and Wildstein have already resigned. Deputy Chief of Staff Kelly will probably be hung out to dry next.