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Where There’s Smoke, There’s Christie

N.J. Gov. Chris Christie
photo by Gage Skidmore

I can’t quite make out a gun, but is that a wisp of smoke emanating from the neighborhood of New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie’s waistband?

The famously micromanagerial governor and once-upon-a-time presidential candidate has steadfastly claimed not to have known anything about his former aides’ attempts to punish a Democratic mayor who refused to endorse Christie for re-election. Christie wanted us all to know that he would never stand for such conduct coming from his official office.

That story didn’t add up at the time, no matter how stubbornly Christie asserted his ignorance. Now a series of emails from former Christie aide Bill Stepien have weakened Christie’s anemic story even further.

As a quick refresher, the “Bridgegate” episode concerned politically motivated lane closures in Fort Lee, New Jersey, which resulted in four days of chaos for travelers attempting to cross the George Washington Bridge. The traffic jam, it later came out, was an attempt to punish the town’s mayor for failing to endorse Christie’s gubernatorial re-election bid.

Bridget Anne Kelly, Christie’s former deputy chief of staff, and Bill Baroni, the former deputy executive director for the Port Authority, were both charged with multiple counts of conspiracy to commit fraud. David Wildstein, a former close political ally to Christie, pleaded guilty last year to conspiracy to commit fraud and conspiracy against civil rights. Paul Fishman, the U.S. attorney for New Jersey, said his office had no plans to charge anyone else in connection with the incident, suggesting Christie was off the hook legally, if not politically.

In addition to the three individuals who were charged, in January prosecutors gave defense lawyers a list of co-conspirators who allegedly joined in the plot but were not charged with any crime. While journalists have pushed for the release of these names, the appeals court recently blocked a district judge’s order that prosecutors disclose the list, meaning the public may not know who exactly was involved in the Fort Lee incident until Kelly and Baroni’s trials, currently scheduled for September. (Their respective motions to dismiss the case have been denied.)

No one wants to admit their fingerprints appear on the plans for Bridgegate, least of all Christie himself. But it seems his political headache will get worse before it gets better. The emails from Stepien were attached to a defense filing from Baroni, supporting the argument that he should be given access to the governor’s cell phone records, texts and emails, presumably to bolster his defense after Christie threw him and Kelly under the bus.

The emails in question indicate that Christie was informed of at least some political activities carried out by the governor’s Office of Intergovernmental Affairs. That department was disbanded under the pall of its association with the Fort Lee incident, though a report from law firm Gibson, Dunn & Crutcher blamed Kelly alone for the misconduct of the office while it was under her supervision. Stepien, Kelly’s predecessor, had left the governor’s official payroll to serve as Christie’s campaign manager; at least one of the newly released emails, however, seems to predate the transition of the office from Stepien to Kelly.

The newly released Stepien emails do not prove any actual wrongdoing on his part or Christie’s. But they do make the claim that the Office of Intergovernmental Affairs was apolitical before Kelly took over much harder to swallow. And if there was anyone left who believed that Christie did not know what some of his closest aides were up to on his behalf, the emails would doubtless harm that fiction as well.

The governor’s denials were implausible when he made them, and they are even less plausible now. He may not have wanted to hear specific details, but that was for the same reasons that a mob boss doesn’t want to hear exactly how his underlings tried to make him happy. As a former prosecutor, he understands this perfectly well – and so do we.

Christie is still riding the Donald Trump bandwagon toward what he presumably hopes is his next gig. Nobody can predict how Trump will respond to anything, and I’m certainly not going to try. But Trump seems to like making his own messes more than inheriting somebody else’s. I’ve got to guess that if he catches a whiff of that smoke from the guy standing behind him at certain events, he’s going to decide that there may be a recently fired weapon in there somewhere and look elsewhere for a vice presidential candidate.

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