Fired After Bridgegate. Hired By Trump White House?
President-elect Donald Trump is reportedly considering bringing to the White House a political operative with close ties to the Bridgegate scandal. Bill Stepien came of age in New Jersey politics alongside the three convicted Bridgegate felons before managing both of Chris Christie's gubernatorial campaigns.
Stepien was the national field director for Trump's presidential campaign and is now in line to become the White House political director, according to The New York Times. His hiring is being pushed by Trump son-in-law Jared Kushner, who is friends with long-time Stepien ally David Wildstein, the admitted Bridgegate lead conspirator.
Stepien also ran the legislative campaigns of convicted Bridgegate conspirator Bill Baroni, the former Port Authority deputy executive director. And Christie's attorneys alleged Stepien had a romantic relationship with the third person convicted in the scheme, Bridget Anne Kelly.
In 2009, Stepien directed Christie’s underdog Republican campaign to beat a Democratic incumbent. Barely 30 at the time, Stepien was widely considered a political wunderkind. Gov. Christie then hired Stepien for a public job analogous to his possible future role in the White House — the head of the governor's Office of Intergovernmental Affairs, called the IGA.
The IGA was the unit responsible for so much of Christie’s political success — executing a strategy of wooing Democratic mayors with gifts, like burnt steel mementos from Ground Zero, while punishing enemies. Stepien's staff analyzed election data during work hours, on the taxpayers’ dime, and with that information devised a secret dossier of the towns where Christie needed to be popular in order to win reelection.
This T100 list, as it was known, was the guide to determine which towns Christie held his famous town hall meetings. Emails released in the Bridgegate investigation show that Stepien discussed favors for Democrats targeted by Christie for endorsements — including tours of the then-closed World Trade Center site, which was controlled by the Port Authority, and tickets for the governor's box at New York Giants games.
Stepien once wrote: "It’s good to be an incumbent with stuff to offer, ain’t it?" In another email, Stepien and Bridgegate mastermind David Wildstein discussed sending flags that Wildstein arranged to have flown at the World Trade Center to VFW headquarters in Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina.
Emails released in the Bridgegate investigation also show that Stepien wielded not just the carrot but the stick. For example, when Hoboken Mayor Dawn Zimmer decided not to endorse Christie's reelection, Stepien complained about "kissing her ass" for nothing. He instructed his staff not to rush to return her phone calls.
He wrote emails that used language which underpinned the Bridgegate scheme of punishing a mayor -- "icing out" politicians who weren’t friendly, for example, and maintaining "radio silence" with those perceived as political foes. Those phrases seemed to have originated with Stepien and were adopted by the Bridgegate conspirators.
Stepien worked particularly closely with Wildstein, who described himself as a political fixer at the Port Authority. Stepien ordered Wildstein to use private email so it wouldn’t be subject to freedom of information requests, according to court testimony, and he directed Wildstein to draw up a so-called "red light-green light" list of Democrats who worked for the Port Authority so they could be fired to make way for GOP hires.
That's a tactic that could be replicated by Stepien at the Trump White House, especially since Kushner is presumably familiar with Stepien's political style. Kushner once told Wildstein that closing the lanes to the George Washington Bridge was "badass."
Stepien has never told his side of the Bridgegate story on the record, but his name was mentioned during the trial almost every day, 351 times in all. The trial testimony and emails released at trial show Stepien was aware of Wildstein’s idea to close the lanes years earlier when Wildstein said he first visited the bridge and noticed that local lanes from the town of Fort Lee could be used as "leverage" in getting the mayor to do what they wanted.
Wildstein also testified that he kept Stepien apprised of the plot as he developed it, and that at one point Stepien asked him: "What’s your cover?" That meant: How will we explain the closures? Wildstein told him they were going to falsely say it was a traffic study — which is exactly the cover story that the conspirators used.
Just prior to Christie's first extensive (and false, according to five witnesses) Bridgegate press conference, Stepien was frantically trying to reach Wildstein to see what kind of emails he had in his trove.
Stepien's nickname in New Jersey was "Smoke" -- now you see him, now you don't. If Stepien’s time working for Christie is any indication, sources say, White House staffers can expect 4:30 a.m. emails and doors shut on those who show up one minute late for meetings. There will likely be a singular focus on securing Trump's reelection in 2020.
Sources have said Stepien was known for demotivating pep talks: ”Nobody in this office is irreplaceable -- you’re all replaceable,” and ”Nobody is going to cause Chris Christie to lose what he’s worked all his life for.”
Then, of course, Christie did lose what he worked his life for.
The day the infamous "time for some traffic problems in Fort Lee" email was released, Christie removed Stepien from new posts he had taken at the New Jersey Republican party and the Republican Governors Association, saying that Stepien's language in some of the emails was "callous and indifferent." Though Stepien has never been charged with a crime, his attorney was a constant presence at the Bridgegate trial, often huddling with Kelly's lawyer.
Another former Christie aide, Matt Mowers, testified in the Bridgegate trial about his role securing political endorsements in the governor's office. Mowers was Stepien's protege, and he put together an online-only document shielded from public document requests that tracked special favors for Democratic mayors who were targets for endorsements.
Mowers also worked for the Trump campaign. He did not respond to a question this week about whether he, too, was headed to the White House.