Bridge-gate is now a very real problem for New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie.
On Wednesday morning, the Bergen Record reported on private e-mails sent between Christie deputy chief of staff Bridget Anne Kelly and David Wildstein, a Christie appointee at the Port Authority, that make quite clear that Kelly ordered the closure of some of the lanes to the George Washington Bridge as an attempt to make life more difficult for Mark Sokolich, the Democratic mayor of Fort Lee, N.J. “Time for some traffic problems in Fort Lee,” Kelly wrote to Wildstein in an e-mail just weeks before the closures began.
As the Record's Shawn Boburg writes:
The documents obtained by The Record raise serious doubts about months of claims by the Christie administration that the September closures of local access lanes to the George Washington Bridge were part of a traffic study initiated solely by the Port Authority. Instead, they show that one of the governor’s top aides was deeply involved in the decision to choke off the borough’s access to the bridge, and they provide the strongest indication yet that it was part of a politically-motivated vendetta — a notion that Christie has publicly denied.
The e-mails add to the burgeoning controversy that has already led two Christie picks -- including Wildstein -- at the Port Authority to step aside. They also raise all sorts of questions in our minds -- some that Christie will have to answer, others that we just don't get. Here are three.
1. How can Christie hang on to the idea the Fort Lee traffic wasn't politically motivated? Amid the resignations, Christie has steadfastly stood by the idea that while these officials made poor judgments, there was nothing political about it. (He said the resignation of Bill Baroni, deputy director of the Port Authority, had been long coming and had nothing to do with the bridge controversy.) While the e-mails between Kelly and Wildstein don't make clear why the mayor of Fort Lee is being targeted, they do make crystal clear that the traffic study was simply a guise for a bit of old-school bare-knuckled politics. (Democrats have alleged that the closures were payback because the mayor refused to endorse Christie for reelection last November.) What does Christie say now?
2. Can he keep this from making it all the way to him? Prior to these e-mails, the story was -- in the Christie retelling -- a case of Port Authority officials acting badly. Well, now, one of his top aides is caught red-handed delivering a bit of political payback. Even if Christie jettisons Kelly -- and it's hard to see how he can avoid doing so after today's stories -- that won't end it. This thing just got a lot closer to Christie than is comfortable for someone who is looking very seriously at running for president in three years.
3. Who puts these sort of things in e-mails/texts? Kelly and Wildstein quite clearly thought that their private e-mail accounts couldn't be subpoenaed and that texts, too, were off limits. Otherwise, why would you write "time for some traffic problems in Fort Lee," which sounds like a line out of the "Godfather"? The assumption of privacy in this day and age is a fallacy, and people who work at such high levels for someone as high-profile as Christie should know better.
We've been skeptical in the past that this Bridge-gate saga would matter much to Christie as he looks toward 2016. But, the fact that it is now in his inner circle and looks entirely political makes it something he is going to have to address in a more comprehensive way than he has in the past. As recently as early December, Christie was joking about the closures; “I worked the cones," he told reporters. "Unbeknownst to anyone, I was working the cones." (The Newark Star-Ledger has a great timeline of Bridge-gate that's worth checking out.)
Molehills can grow into mountains in politics. This is now a serious problem for Christie.