Even as New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie continues to lead the transition effort for Donald Trump's presidential campaign, he is coming under increased scrutiny in his home state. The trial over the closing of several lanes of traffic leading to the George Washington Bridge -- commonly known as Bridgegate -- is underway and allegations about what Christie knew and when he knew it are flying. I reached out to Tom Moran, a longtime political reporter in New Jersey and now a member of the Star-Ledger's editorial board, for some context and clarity about Christie and the scandal more broadly. Our conversation, conducted via email and lightly edited, is below.
FIX: The Bridgegate trial is under way. How is Christie handling the publicity around it? Does he talk about it or get asked about it in press availabilities?
Moran: When the scandal broke open, in January 2014, he held a press conference that lasted two hours, and he took all questions. But he’s been more elusive since then. At most public events these days, he doesn’t take questions. He doesn’t hold press conferences as often as he used to. And he does sit-down interviews only with national broadcast media — not New Jersey reporters who know the details well enough to challenge him.
Still, he is asked about it, as he was during an appearance on radio this week, and he has stuck to his story: I didn’t know a thing about this before or during it, I found out when the stories broke in the press, like everyone else. He has no choice now. He’s all in.
Also, his core defense is contained in an internal investigation known as the Mastro report, after its lead lawyer. It has cost taxpayers about $10 million, and it’s been supervised by a senior partner at the firm, Debra Wong Yang, whom Christie had previously called a “dear friend” and with whom he has vacationed with [their] families. The federal judge handling the Bridgegate trial, Susan Wigenton, excoriated that study and equated the secretive practices used by its team, which didn’t keep notes, as the equivalent of paper shredding.
FIX: Both the prosecution and the defense is saying that Christie knew about the lane closures as they were happening. That’s a BIG deal, no?
Moran: Politically, yes. But legally, no.
Christie’s favorable ratings in New Jersey are in Nixon territory, most recently at 23 percent. His ability to get things done in the Democratic legislature, or to sway public opinion, has disappeared. Still, he has stuck to his story that he knew nothing, and if hard evidence proves that to be [wrong], then his small core of supporters in New Jersey will probably dwindle even further, and his reputation outside the state will surely suffer a fatal blow.
But Christie is not charged in the case, and most attorneys I speak to say that’s because the evidence that he knew probably does not meet the “beyond a reasonable doubt” standard of proof required for a criminal conviction. It relies entirely on the word of David Wildstein, the star witness, who has pleaded guilty and admitted that this was all his idea. Wildstein’s testimony against the two defendants is supported by emails, texts, and phone logs. His accusation against the governor is not. And without that scaffolding, it’s his word against the governor’s — not enough for U.S. Attorney Paul Fishman to press charges.
The standard of proof in politics, of course, is considerably looser. Most people — even Donald Trump — believe that Christie knew all about this. He’s a notorious control freak, and it’s unimaginable to most people that the governor had no clue.
FIX: What does Chris Christie’s political future look like? And what about if Trump loses and there is no Trump Cabinet? Could he run for Senate in the state down the line?
Moran: If Christie ran for Senate from New Jersey, he would be crushed. I don’t know anyone here who would disagree with that. Aside from this scandal, the state is a mess. We have the second lowest credit rating in the country, behind Illinois. Our transit trust fund is broke, and all transit projects have been halted except those with an impact on safety. School funding has been frozen for five years. And our job and income growth lags far behind all neighboring states. Plus, New Jersey has not elected a Republican U.S. Senator since it chose Clifford Case in 1972.
If Christie has a political future, it would have to be appointive office, unless he starts fresh somewhere far far away, like Montana. He’s radioactive around here.
FIX: The Jersey City Mayor dropped out of the 2017 governor’s race this week due at least in part to his ties to Bridgegate. How deep do the roots of this whole thing go and could it cost other people their political careers?
Moran: That’s the educated guess on why he withdrew, but we don’t know for sure. Steve Fulop has been dragged into this in two ways. He refused to endorse Christie for re-election, and as a result the governor had his cabinet members and executives at the Port Authority cancel meetings with him, and refuse all contact. That, of course, wouldn’t hurt him in a Democratic primary; it would help.
But emails released in preparation for this trial present trouble for him. In those emails, Christie aides says that Fulop agreed to endorse the governor in exchange for the administration’s help with a private client Fulop represented on the side. (The company was FAPS, which imported cars and modified them for the American market.) Fulop has refused to say when exactly he worked for the company, or how much he was paid. In the end, he didn’t endorse the governor. But there is a backstory here that hasn’t been told, and it’s full of potential hazards for him. He’s likely to be called as a witness in the case, but it’s not clear yet if he will be asked about FAPS.
Others who could be damaged by this are appointees and political operatives in Christie’s inner circle. Fulop is the only significant office holder.
FIX: Finish this sentence: “The lingering effect of Bridgegate on New Jersey politics will be _______________.” Now, explain.
Moran: …To elect a Democratic governor in 2017, and to ensure that Democrats retain control of both houses in the Legislature.
New Jersey voters are already disgusted by their government, and that predates Christie. I’m not sure this scandal moves the needle much on that front.
But the Republican brand has been damaged badly. GOP legislators have been fiercely loyal to the governor, supporting his vetoes every time, even on popular measures that many of them had supported, like funding for Planned Parenthood and modest gun control legislation. As he moved right to run for president, they stuck with him. Republicans even tried to scuttle the legislative investigation of Bridgegate — the investigation that started all this, when a subpoena turned up the infamous “time for some traffic problems in Fort Lee” email.
So I think they are damaged by his politics, and Bridgegate seals the deal. Stay tuned, though: Democrats could cough up a scandal or two and even the score before you know it. This is Jersey.