The Bridgegate scandal and its coverup reached dangerously high into Gov. Chris Christie’s inner sanctum yesterday, directly implicating the governor’s deputy chief of staff in ordering the now-infamous George Washington Bridge lane closures, and tying both the governor’s two-time campaign manager and new choice to head the state Republican Party and his longtime press secretary to the damage-control efforts that followed.
For Christie, the frontrunner for the Republican presidential nomination in 2016 following his landslide reelection in November, the question yesterday was not just whether his presidential ambitions would survive the national media feeding frenzy, but how much yesterday’s revelations and the investigations to follow will undercut his unparalleled exercise of power and the bully pulpit at the Statehouse for the past four years.
“When everybody’s asking the old Nixon question -- ‘What did he know and when did he know it?’ -- that’s not good for the governor, regardless of what comes out of it,” said Monmouth University political scientist Patrick Murray. “And this investigation will play out for some time, which is also not good for the governor.”
Christie, who built a national reputation on his YouTube confrontations with reporters and critics, cancelled what was supposed to be a triumphant public event with superstorm Sandy victims to avoid the media yesterday morning. After darkness fell, he issued a brief statement in which he declared that he was “misled” by a staffer and knew nothing of the latest revelations before yesterday.
Christie’s statement seemed designed to put the focus solely on Bridget Anne Kelly, the governor’s deputy chief of staff whoseto Christie Port Authority appointee David Wildstein -- “Time for some traffic problems in Fort Lee” -- turned up in reporters’ email boxes yesterday morning as the long-awaited “smoking gun” in the Bridge-gate scandal.
Yesterday’s damage control strategy echoed Christie’s efforts last month to limit responsibility for the lane closures to Wildstein, a high school friend he placed as his political point man in the Port Authority, and Bill Baroni, the former GOP state senator whom he appointed as the Port Authority’s deputy executive director. Both Baroni and Wildstein resigned last month. Wildstein’s lawyer will appear in Superior Court this morning to fight a subpoena to testify under oath before the Assembly Transportation Committee at noon.
The problem for Christie, however, is not only that he joked about the lane closures as the “inconsequential” moving of a few cones -- when it was revealed yesterday by The Record that the closures delayed paramedics from reaching an unconscious 91-year-old woman on September 10 who later died in the hospital -- but that yesterday’s emails did not stop at Kelly and Wildstein.
While Christie was sticking to the traffic study explanation and insisting as late as December 19 that no one in his office or campaign staff had any knowledge of the Bridge-gate matter, the emails showed that:
Michael Drewniak, Christie’s press secretary, reviewed -- along with Kelly -- the explanation Wildstein drafted for the Port Authority on September 12 explaining that the lane closures were for a phantom “traffic study” that has never materialized.
Wildstein promised that David Samson, the former New Jersey attorney-general whom Christie selected as Port Authority chairman, would be “helping us to retaliate” against “the New York side” after Port Authority Executive Director Patrick Foye, an appointee of New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo, ordered the lanes reopened on September 13 -- closures that Wildstein had ordered other agency appointees to hide from Foye.
Bill Stepien, Christie’s campaign manager and former deputy chief of staff whom he named state Republican chairman Tuesday, discussed the politics of Bridge-gate with Wildstein on September 18 and 19, with Stepien dismissing Fort Lee Mayor Mark Sokolich as an “idiot” for complaining about the closures and Wildstein promising “it will be a tough November for this little Serbian,” referring to the Croatian-American mayor.
Wildstein emailed Stepien on October 2 that he would discuss in person with Drewniak and Kelly how to handle “leaks from Foye and his messing with us 5 weeks before the election” after Foye was quoted in a story on the lane closings in the Wall Street Journal.