The so-called “Bridgegate” scandal blew up Wednesday, with documents providing evidence that top aides to New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie were involved in the closure of multiple lanes leading to the George Washington Bridge.
Christie says he knew nothing of the communications in question, which involved deputy chief of staff Bridget Anne Kelly telling David Wildstein, a Port Authority official and Christie appointee, that it was “time for some traffic problems in Fort Lee.”
Kelly was fired from her post Thursday, and longtime member of Christie’s inner circle, Bill Sepien, has been recommended to withdraw his candidacy for New Jersey Republican Party chairman as a result of the exposed conversations. But how did days of traffic congestion lead to a scandal with significant implications for Christie’s future?
What happened at the toll plaza?
Multiple access lanes of an onramp to the George Washington Bridge toll plaza in the town of Fort Lee, N.J., were closed for four days starting Sept. 9, creating traffic backups that snarled police, emergency workers and children beginning the new school year.
Fort Lee Mayor Mark Sokolich, a Democrat, has alleged the closures were a form of political retribution for his refusal to endorse Christie’s reelection campaign. Christie’s administration had scoffed at the allegations, claiming alongside the Port Authority the closures were conducted as part of a traffic study.
The closures were eventually lifted Sept. 13 by Port Authority Executive Director Patrick Foye.
What did Wednesday’s documents reveal?
Emails released Wednesday as part of a legislative inquiry into the scandal suggest the closures were politically motivated. In an Aug. 13 exchange, Kelly told David Wildstein to create traffic problems in Fort Lee. Wildstein replied, “Got it.”
The 23 pages of emails and text messages also suggest requests for assistance from Sokolich were purposefully ignored by the Port Authority, even mocked by members of Christie’s inner circle.
“Is it wrong that I am smiling?” an official asked, referring to the request from Sokolich for help.
“No,” another official replied, “They are the children of Buono voters,” alluding to Christie’s 2013 gubernatorial rival Barbara Buono.
Sepien, Christie’s former campaign manager, also labeled Sokolich “an idiot” after he spoke to the media about the closures, and both he and Wildstein dismissively referred to him as a “Serbian.” Sokolich is in fact Croatian.
Did Christie know anything?
The key question remains whether Christie knew anything about the planned closures. Christie, speaking to the media Thursday, remained adamant that he had no knowledge of the planning mentioned in the emails.
“I had no knowledge or involvement in this issue in its planning or its execution,” Christie said, adding he was “stunned by the abject stupidity shown here.”
Christie said Thursday he wouldn’t have even been able to pick out Sokolich out of a lineup, let alone be so incensed by his endorsement refusal to conspire against him, and that he gave no prior approval of punitive actions against the mayor.
Christie said he would continue to investigate the matter with his staff and would cooperate with external inquiries.
Outside of the governor’s office, the U.S. attorney in New Jersey announced Thursday it will begin an inquiry into the lane closures. And Wildstein, who resigned as the No. 2 deputy at the Port Authority in December, has been found guilty of a misdemeanor for refusing to answer a single question posed to him by an investigative committee Thursday.
What are the implications for Christie’s future?
Christie, who won reelection by a landslide last year, quickly ascended to the top of the speculative 2016 presidential ladder, adding another complication to his handling of the scandal. Christie has already topped possible Republican challengers and possible Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton in early polls.
But the conduct of his staff and appointees calls into question his executive management, a concern that Christie apologized for Thursday.
“I am heartbroken that someone who I permitted to be in that circle of trust for the last five years betrayed my trust,” he said.
But speculation remains whether Christie, despite his claims to the contrary, had any knowledge of the planning or execution of politically motivated road closures. Christie has said he first heard of the conversations Wednesday morning.
So far, there is no evidence suggesting the contents of the documents reached Christie earlier, or that he had directed their actions, either of which could sink any presidential ambitions.
House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) told reporters Thursday he believes Christie remains a possible Republican candidate despite the scandal.