If you don’t have popcorn right now, go get some. A scandal that’s been brewing for several months now has reached a major turning point for New Jersey governor and would-be 2016 presidential candidate Chris Christie.
Back in September, several Manhattan-bound lanes of the George Washington Bridge were suddenly closed, resulting in a massive week-long traffic snarl for the town of Fort Lee, New Jersey and frustration for commuters trying to enter the city. Some have theorized that Christie deliberately closed the lanes as payback against Fort Lee’s Democratic mayor Mark Sokolich who refused to endorse Christie in last year’s gubernatorial election. The Christie administration, as well as Christie himself, have emphatically denied the allegations.
At one point during a press conference, Christie snarked at a reporter: “I worked the cones, actually. Unbeknownst to everybody, I was actually the guy out there. I was in overalls and hat, but I was actually the guy working the cones out there. You really are not serious with that question?”
Last month, Bill Baroni and David Wildstein, the latter a high school classmate and close ally of Christie as well as a Christie appointee to the Port Authority, resigned over the allegations. Wildstein had claimed that the lane closures had to do with a “traffic study,” but according to TPM, there’s no evidence of any study in progress.
That brings us to today. Emails have emerged (via TPM) that show Wildstein and Christie’s Deputy Chief of Staff, Bridget Anne Kelly, discussing the lane closures back in August, before the lanes were closed and traffic slowed to a crawl in New Jersey.
“Time for some traffic problems in Fort Lee,” Kelly wrote in an Aug. 13 email to David Wildstein, one of Christie’s appointees to the Port Authority of New York & New Jersey.
“Got it,” Wildstein replied.
It’s important to point out that Kelly’s “time for some traffic” remark might’ve been an off-the-cuff way of stating that the so-called traffic study would, indeed, create a traffic nightmare for Fort Lee. Any lane closures would, in fact, do that. But it’s just as possible that it was a vindictive remark, in essence pulling the trigger on the political payback scam against Fort Lee’s mayor.
In another email exchange, Mayor Sokolich wrote to Christie appointee Baroni and demanded, “Help please. It’s maddening.” Baroni forwarded the mayor’s email to Wildstein who replied, “Is it wrong that I am smiling?” No word on whether he was also twirling his mustache.
Then came the most incriminating email exchange, again between Wildstein and Kelly.
“The New York side gave Fort Lee back all three lanes this morning. We are appropriately going nuts. Samson helping us to retaliate,” wrote Wildstein in an apparent reference to another Christie appointee at Port Authority, Chairman David Samson.
“What??” Kelly replied.
Yes, Wildstein used the word “retaliate.”
The issue here isn’t just (alleged) political retribution or a dirty trick. Christie’s staff, with perhaps Christie’s go-ahead, escalated a dirty trick to include thousands of commuters and other drivers in and around the town. Traffic of that magnitude isn’t just frustrating, it’s a major public safety hazard — disabling the ability of ambulances, law enforcement vehicles and fire trucks to navigate the roads. This, in a nutshell, is one of the most damning aspects of this scandal for Christie. If it comes to light that Christie orchestrated the lane closures and, as a result, someone died in an ambulance or some other serious consequence of the scandal, there could be career-ending ramifications for Christie.
Furthermore, is this Christie’s idea of how politics should operate? If so, how would he behave with the resources of a commander-in-chief at his disposal? And, even if he’s innocent and not connected to the scandal, are these the kinds of people he’d appoint to an array of White House and cabinet level posts? There’s a lot of explaining to do, and the popcorn is popping.
UPDATE: Uh-oh. Mother Jones: Christie Administration’s Bridge Lane Closure Slowed Search for Missing 4-Year-Old, Says Official.
“There was a missing child that day. The police had trouble conducting that search because they were tied up directing traffic,” says Jan Goldberg, a Fort Lee councilman who works with local emergency personnel. Police found the missing child, a four-year-old. “But with the streets in the condition they were, I would venture to say that the search took longer,” Goldberg says.
UPDATE 2: Chris Christie released the following statement:
“What I’ve seen today for the first time is unacceptable. I am outraged and deeply saddened to learn that not only was I misled by a member of my staff, but this completely inappropriate and unsanctioned conduct was made without my knowledge. One thing is clear: this type of behavior is unacceptable and I will not tolerate it because the people of New Jersey deserve better. This behavior is not representative of me or my Administration in any way, and people will be held responsible for their actions.”
If Christie goes after Wildstein and the others, and he himself authorized the lane closures, the former staffers will surely be the ones to spill the beans about it.
UPDATE 3: This is really, really bad.
Emergency responders were delayed in attending to four medical situations – including one in which a 91-year-old woman lay unconscious – due to traffic gridlock caused by unannounced closures of access lanes to the George Washington Bridge, according to the head of the borough’s EMS department.
The woman later died, borough records show.