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Ear to the Ground

Cat’s Out of the Bag, Chris Christie

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Posted on Jan 8, 2014
Gage Skidmore (CC BY-SA 2.0)

Strong evidence that may implicate the New Jersey Republican in a politically retributive weeklong traffic jam in the Garden State city of Fort Lee in September could destroy his chances of winning the 2016 presidential nomination.

It all started with the Port Authority of New Jersey and New York shutting down two lanes that lead to the George Washington Bridge, creating massive backups in Fort Lee. Internal emails between one of Christie’s aides and Port Authority Director of Interstate Capital Projects David Wildstein suggest that the governor’s office was behind the closure, which was attributed to a “traffic study.” But why would Christie create such an inconvenience in his own state? According to Mother Jones:

Soon after the traffic jam, rumors emerged that the Port Authority closed the bridge lanes as political retribution against Fort Lee Mayor Mark Sokolich, a Democrat who endorsed Gov. Chris Christie’s opponent in the 2013 gubernatorial campaign. As news outlets and New Jersey Democrats dug deeper into the circumstances of the bridge incident, they eventually connected the lane closures to two Port Authority officials with close ties to Christie: Bill Baroni, the deputy executive director of the agency, and David Wildstein, its director of interstate capital projects. Baroni and Wildstein have since resigned, and both men have retained criminal defense attorneys.

All along, the Christie administration had denied any connection to the decision to close the bridge lanes. In September, a Christie spokesman called the retribution claim “crazy.” Christie told reporters at a December press conference that the Fort Lee traffic snarl was “absolutely, unequivocally not” a result of political score-settling….

In response to a subpoena, Wildstein provided a bevy of emails sent by Christie’s staff to a panel of state lawmakers investigating the road closures. The messages fly in the face of many of the claims Christie has made about the bridge closure. Wildstein will testify about the documents before that panel on Thursday.

The messages, traded between several members of Christie’s senior staff, his campaign manager, and his deputy chief of staff, were sent mostly from staffers’ private accounts and did not loop in Christie. They strongly suggest that members of Christie’s inner circle planned the lane closures as political retaliation against Sokolich. Other top Christie associates included in the email chain after the lanes were reopened include David Samson, the chairman of the Port Authority, and Michael Drewniak, Christie’s spokesman. The emails contradict repeated statements by Christie that neither his staff nor anyone from his campaign was involved with the lane closures.

The messages also lay bare Christie’s staff’s gleeful anticipation of Fort Lee’s traffic debacle. On the day of the lane closures and in the aftermath, Christie’s top aids privately traded jabs at Fort Lee’s mayor and mocked the town’s residents as they struggled to deal with the traffic.

Some of the most shining moments are comments such as Wildstein’s response to an unidentified message claiming sympathy for the “kids” who were caught up in this mess. “They are the children of Buono voters,” wrote the Port Authority executive, referring to Barbara Buono, the Democrat who lost against Christie last year. Then there was Bill Stepien, Christie’s campaign manager, who wrote that Fort Lee’s mayor is “an idiot.”

Whether or not the governor was planning on running for president any time soon, this scandal will surely put a cog in his political career. And that jam would be completely self-inflicted.

—Posted by Natasha Hakimi

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