Christie Takes a Beating in Bridgegate Trial Opening: 10 Takeaways

Matt Katz, Andrea Bernstein | September 19, 2016 | Katz on Christie

1. Christie knew. Since the Bridgegate scandal broke, the key organizer of the lane closures, David Wildstein, who has pleaded guilty, has hinted that “evidence exists” that Christie knew of the closures while they were happening. Now, prosecutors came out and said it. On the third day of the closures, at a Sept. 11 memorial service at the World Trade Center, Wildstein and defendant Bill Baroni had a “precious few minutes with Gov. Christie,” assistant U.S. attorney Vikas Khanna told the jury. The pair “bragged about the traffic problems they were having in Fort Lee and that Mayor Sokolich was not getting his calls returned.” Christie hasn’t explicitly denied that Wildstein raised the issue of the traffic jams at that event, but has said he wouldn’t remember it if Wildstein had, because traffic problems are so common in New Jersey. Today’s arguments indicate that Christie was told about the closures, and not just in passing.

2. “Time for some traffic problems in Fort Lee” email was just a joke. Michael Critchley, attorney for Bridget Anne Kelly, told jurors that the smoking gun email was banter, just a joke, exchanged as part of a casual conversation with Wildstein. The mother of four going through a divorce at the time of the email was juggling lower-level duties — ordering food for events and scheduling meetings at the governor’s mansion. “The idea that Bridget Kelly is directing the affairs of the state of New Jersey, ordering the shutdown of the George Washington Bridge…it’s almost absurd,” Critchley said. He argued that Kelly was a “scapegoat,” blamed by the governor’s lawyers for the lane closures to protect Christie’s nascent presidential campaign. “They wanted to throw her under the presidential bus.”

3. Bridgegate felon David Wildstein was Christie’s master of political dark arts. According to Baroni’s defense attorney, Christie referred to Wildstein as his “fixer.” The governor used to joke that Wildstein was his Mr. Wolf from the movie Pulp Fiction, the Harvey Keitel character who cleans up the bodies. Christie has said he barely met with Wildstein while he was governor, but in court, defense attorneys said the evidence will show Christie kept close tabs on Wildstein.

4. Wildstein was in Christie’s inner circle. Critchley displayed a chart in the courtroom with Christie at the center, titled “Inner Circle.” Arrayed around the governor were six men — including Wildstein. This characterization directly contradicts the way Christie has characterized their relationship — as almost non-existent. But defense attorneys say Wildstein and Christie met frequently, even having rapid-fire “red light/green light” meetings where they’d decide who’d get fired and which politically-connected appointees to install in those positions. Critchley said: “David Wildstein implicated so many people in this activity that it will boggle your mind. There are people at the highest level of government in New Jersey and at the very, very top of the Port Authority.” Or as Baroni’s attorney, Michael Baldassare, put it: “At the Port Authority, when David Wildstein spoke, Gov. Christie’s voice came out, and everybody knew it. David Wildstein looked like a ventriloquist’s puppet sitting on Christopher J. Christie’s lap.”

5. It was Spy v. Spy. Baroni, we learned in opening arguments, was an FBI informant while he was a state legislator, reporting back through the FBI to then-U.S. Attorney Christie about political corruption in New Jersey. When Bridgegate broke, Wildstein allegedly stole Baroni’s hard drive when he left the Port Authority. And New York officials at the Port Authority hacked into Baroni’s emails.

6. Wildstein’s history of lying and dirty tricks is extensive. To defeat an opponent in an early political race, Wildstein offered to drop the candidate’s nominating petitions at the elections office — but then he threw them in the trash. He stole former Democratic Sen. Frank Lautenberg’s suit coat before a debate — which he thought would force him into an uncomfortable, ill-fitting jacket on stage — and then kept it as a trophy. He lied about graduating from George Washington University on his application to the Port Authority. And just six days after the “time for some traffic problems” email was released, he began cooperating with prosecutors. Defense attorneys accused him of trading “scalps for time,” noting he may only face probation when he is sentenced, instead of the maximum fifteen years he could have gotten if he didn’t cooperate with authorities.

7. Christie and New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo colluded to cover up Bridgegate. As the scandal began to bubble up, it took months for either governor to be questioned about it. And when they were finally asked, they joked about it (Christie) and brushed it off (Cuomo.) But according to defense attorneys, Christie and Cuomo began talking about the lane closures as early as Sept. 13, the day the closures were reversed. They are trying to suggest that Kelly was engaging in a cover up,” said Kelly’s attorney, Critchley, “that she was utilizing the resources of the Port Authority…give me a break! You know who is involved at that point in time? Chris Christie and Andrew Cuomo. They were both involved. They were talking to each other.”

8. The defense is casting Wildstein as the villain. According to Baroni’s attorney, Baldassare, the “evidence will show” that Wildstein is known as: “A vicious guy. He’s a bully, he’s an asshole, he’s a horrible person, he’s the most complicated person I’ve ever met. He’s a vindictive person who would destroy your life, he’s known for lying, he has a twisted mind, he’s maniacal, he’s a miserable prick.”

9. The press is despised. Christie’s former spokesman, Michael Drewniak, will be a key part of the defense’s case, Critchley said. He told the jury that there’s an email between Wildstein and Drewniak in which Drewniak disparages Tom Moran, a Star-Ledger columnist: “I really hate that fucker, I want to beat him with a lead pipe…That would put everyone on notice.”

10. Christie’s reputation is going to take a six-week beating. All three lawyers who addressed the jury on Monday, from the prosecution and defense, described an administration hell-bent on using quasi-legal bribes and shady revenge schemes to set Christie up for a spot in the White House. He could still run for president again one day — but that may only be because there aren’t video cameras allowed in the courtroom to capture some of this testimony.