All Eyes Are on Chris Christie as Trial in Bridge Scandal Starts

It might be easy to forget, now that he has endorsed and defended Donald J. Trump to the ridicule and anger of fellow Republicans he called friends, that Gov. Chris Christie of New Jersey was himself once a leading, if not the leading, presidential hopeful in his party.

Then came revelations of a scheme so preposterous that it was hard to believe: Aides to the governor had deliberately created a traffic jam at the world’s busiest bridge as political payback.

The trial in the George Washington Bridge lane-closing scandal, which is scheduled to open on Thursday with jury selection, will play out like a documentary on the rise and fall of Mr. Christie’s presidential ambitions, a tell-all tale of how he and his aides built his administration and his 2013 re-election campaign with an eye to winning the White House, then scrambled to contain the damage as inquiries into the lane closings began to wreck those hopes.

Mr. Christie has not been charged. But he will loom large in the story laid out by both sides in the courtroom.

The governor is expected to be on a list of people who federal prosecutors say knew about the scheme to create gridlock in order to to punish a mayor who had declined to endorse him.

And while prosecutors have fought back against a defense lawyer’s assertion that the case is “criminalizing normal politics,” their argument in court filings is that the lane closings were precisely that: normal politics. At least, normal Christie politics — aggressively transactional and focused above all on winning.

In the prosecutors’ portrayal — and defense lawyers do not really disagree — the Christie administration treated the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, the $8 billion-a-year bistate agency that operates the bridge, as an arm of the governor’s campaign for a second term, using it to cajole mayors into endorsing Mr. Christie and discipline them if they did not. An entire department of the governor’s office was focused on gaining the support of local officials, as Mr. Christie sought the sort of landslide victory that would allow him to argue that he was the Republican best able to take the White House.

“It offers a glimpse at the kind of machinations that went into shaping a candidate with national ambitions,” said Brigid Callahan Harrison, a professor of political science and law at Montclair State University. “Not just all of the kind of back-room inside politics that many people find really distasteful, but the enormous extent to which the administration would flex its muscles to paint Chris Christie as this candidate that had such broad appeal.”

Nearly three years after the mystery of the lane closings captivated New Jersey, the trial will finally answer big questions. Perhaps biggest of all: When and how did Mr. Christie know about the plan, as the prosecution’s star witness has said he did? And who else was involved?

Mr. Christie was always expected to coast to victory in his 2013 re-election bid. But he wanted to break the record set by his mentor, former Gov. Thomas H. Kean, who won re-election with 69 percent of the vote. And he wanted to demonstrate to national Republicans that he could win crossover support from women, Hispanics, black voters, and Democrats, even in a state where they far outnumber Republicans.

Mark Sokolich, the mayor of Fort Lee, the town on the New Jersey side of the George Washington Bridge, was 47th on a list of 100 Democratic mayors that the Christie administration was especially hoping to win over.

On Aug. 13, 2013, after confirming with an aide who had tried to court the mayor that he was not going to support Mr. Christie, Bridget Anne Kelly, a deputy chief of staff to Mr. Christie, sent an email to David Wildstein, a Christie ally at the Port Authority: “Time for some traffic problems in Fort Lee.”

They waited a month — to achieve maximum impact, prosecutors say — until the first day of school, in a week that included Yom Kippur and the Sept. 11 anniversary, and closed two of the three access lanes from Fort Lee to the bridge.

They did not tell local officials, who were soon overwhelmed by traffic, with ambulances, school buses and commuters gridlocked for hours.

Mr. Wildstein went to the bridge to admire his handiwork in person, and texted Ms. Kelly about children stuck on buses. “Is it wrong that I am smiling?” she replied.

As drivers fumed, the Port Authority police instructed them to call Mayor Sokolich, who in turn called, emailed and texted Bill Baroni, Mr. Christie’s top appointee at the Port Authority. Mr. Baroni refused to respond, as did the governor’s office. “Radio silence,” Mr. Wildstein wrote to Mr. Christie’s campaign manager.

The lanes were closed for four days, until the executive director of the Port Authority, an appointee of New York’s governor, discovered a query from a traffic columnist about the delays and ordered the lanes reopened.

That November, Mr. Christie won his huge margin of victory, with 60 percent, though he fell short of Mr. Kean’s record. In his victory speech, he urged Washington to learn from his electoral success.

But reporters, and the State Legislature, which Democrats control, continued to press questions about the bridge. The governor’s office and Port Authority officials said the lane closings were part of a traffic study; Mr. Baroni told a legislative committee that not telling the mayor or local police had been a “communications breakdown.”

That story unraveled in January 2014, when a legislative subpoena revealed Ms. Kelly’s email. Mr. Wildstein began to cooperate with federal prosecutors, and pleaded guilty in May 2015 to conspiracy to commit fraud and conspiracy against civil rights. Ms. Kelly and Mr. Baroni were indicted later the same day.

Mr. Wildstein will be the witness to watch during their trial, at the federal courthouse in Newark. Once the author of a widely read and widely feared (and anonymous) political blog, he was hired to be a kind of enforcer at the Port Authority, as New Jersey sought to take back some of the power Mr. Christie believed had been shifted to New York.

Court filings suggest that Mr. Wildstein will help the government establish the traffic jam as part of a pattern of retribution. Christie officials had punished another Democratic mayor, Steven Fulop of Jersey City (No. 34 on the administration’s list of 100 mayors), after he reneged on what they thought was a deal to support the governor. Mayor Fulop had represented a Port Authority tenant in its bid to get a lease extension. Mr. Wildstein and Mr. Baroni had helped him get the terms he wanted and Mr. Christie’s campaign manager urged them to “continue throwing the Gov/my name around when discussing this with him,” so the mayor would understand that the governor had helped him, and expected help in return.

When Mr. Fulop told the Christie campaign he would not give his endorsement, the administration canceled a special “mayor’s day” of meetings between Mr. Fulop and high-ranking Port Authority and Christie administration officials.

Mr. Wildstein also said early on that “evidence exists” that Mr. Christie knew about the lane closings as they were happening. Court filings suggest that at least part of that evidence may be photographs of Mr. Christie laughing with Mr. Baroni and Mr. Wildstein at a Sept. 11 memorial service that week, during which, Mr. Wildstein has said, the lane closings were discussed.

 “The photos will provide corroboration,” a court filing explains, before proceeding into a lengthy redaction.

The names of other unindicted co-conspirators — people who joined in the conspiracy but are not charged — are likely to come out at the trial.

There is another list, of people who knew about the conspiracy but did not join in it, which almost certainly includes Mr. Christie.It was unclear whether that means the governor knew about the plot before it began, as he has strenuously denied, or while it was going on, which he has vacillated about in his public comments. Mr. Christie did not respond to requests for comment about the list.

And lawyers for Mr. Baroni and Ms. Kelly have said the two were hardly alone in planning the scheme or covering it up.

In court papers, Mr. Baroni’s lawyer pointed out that Mr. Christie acknowledged, in an internal report on the lane closings, that canceling the meetings with Mr. Fulop had been his idea.

The lawyer also revealed a text from another witness expected to testify for the government, Christina Renna, to a Christie campaign aide, sent during a January 2014 news conference when the governor said his senior staff and campaign chief, Bill Stepien, did not know about the lane closings. “He just flat-out lied about senior staff and Stepien not being involved,” Ms. Renna wrote. (Mr. Christie and Mr. Stepien’s lawyer say this does not prove any involvement.)

Ms. Kelly, in her only public statement after the indictment, said it was absurd to suggest that she would act on her own to order the lane closings or cover them up. In her lawyer’s telling, the governor’s office was less worried about figuring out what had happened with the lane closings — the senior staff all knew exactly what happened, they say — and more concerned with figuring out what evidence existed, and how it might damage Mr. Christie’s national ambitions.

It did. Significantly. Mr. Christie’s approval ratings in New Jersey, commanding when he was re-elected in 2013, fell, and they have lagged at record lows since the bridge scandal.

Speaking to reporters last month, Mr. Christie played down the importance of the trial. “I know you guys all hope for this story to go on forever,” he said. “But unfortunately for you, I suspect by the time we get to October or so, it will finally be over.”

Opening arguments are scheduled for Sept. 19.

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