New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie (R) wasn't actually on trial in the Bridgegate case, which ended Friday with the conviction of two of Christie's former top aides. But he'll be hit with a penalty regardless: The former presidential candidate is now and forever officially tainted with that traffic-jammed week on the George Washington Bridge.
And the conviction of Bill Baroni and Bridget Kelly for their roles in closing lanes on one of the world's busiest bridges for five days in 2013 to punish a local mayor will cloud whatever Christie's already-gloomy political future holds.
It's not inconceivable that Christie would spend the year he has left in the governor's office under impeachment proceedings by the Democratic state legislature, said Brigid Harrison, a political science and law professor at Montclair State University. Even if Republican Donald Trump were to win the White House and Christie — now the head of Trump's transition team — escapes New Jersey for a high-profile job in D.C., Bridgegate would follow him down I-95.
Would President Trump really want to make Christie his chief of staff after these convictions? If Trump appointed Christie to be, say, his attorney general, would the Senate want to confirm him? Everywhere Christie goes, he's been trailed by this case. And that was before his own staff members were convicted of crimes.
“It taints his legacy,” Harrison said. “No one will be able to think about Gov. Christie's tenure in office without having it be colored by these convictions.”
It also gets more difficult for the average person to believe that Christie had nothing to do with Bridgegate. When the jury found Baroni and Kelly guilty on all counts, they appeared to also implicitly doubt Christie's narrative that he knew nothing about it.
Kelly and Baroni's defense tried to pitch them as Christie's scapegoats. Prosecutors described both as the governor's “loyal lieutenants” intent on helping their boss run for president. In either version, Christie is an active part of the narrative.
“I think the evidence presented raises the question of whether state resources were broadly used as a tool to advance Gov. Christie's presidential bid,” Harrison said.
Christie's job approval ratings were already at their lowest point ever. A Fairleigh Dickinson University PublicMind poll released in mid-October found just 21 percent of residents approved of the job he was doing, down from 26 percent in June. And more than half of voters — 52 percent — said there was “sufficient proof” that Christie was aware of the lane closures and didn't try to stop them.
In the wake of the trial, Christie stuck to his own narrative: He was just an innocent bystander. “Like so many people in New Jersey, I'm saddened by this case and I'm saddened about the choices made by Bill Baroni, Bridget Kelly and David Wildstein. Today's verdict does not change this for me.” He added: “I had no knowledge prior to or during these lane realignments.”
(Wildstein is a GOP operative who said he orchestrated the whole thing and pleaded guilty, testifying in the trial that Kelly and Baroni helped him out. NJ.com has a solid roundup of it all.)
We've already witnessed Bridgegate's power to drag down Christie's once skyrocketing career.
After his resounding reelection in 2014, it was all but assured he would be running for president in 2016. But Bridgegate became the drama he simply couldn't shake. When he launched his campaign for president in spring 2015, he would be asked about it while campaigning in places like New Hampshire. Trump even attacked him for it during the primaries:
Christie, of course, dropped out of the race after losing New Hampshire, then promptly endorsed Trump.
And Trump embraced Christie. But as the trial pointed more and more fingers at Christie, Trump has appeared less and less keen on the governor. The New York Post reported this week that Trump briefly asked Christie to be his running mate, then rescinded it because he and his advisers thought Bridgegate would be too toxic.
In an interview Friday with Fox News's Bret Baier, Trump was asked whether he still has confidence in Christie. Trump's reply: “Well, I have great confidence in him. I have not been following the trial. I don't know really.” He added. “It'll be interesting to see what happens. But I do like him very much, and I do have confidence in him, and I hope it all works out well for him.” In other words, Trump is standing behind Christie. Way behind him.
The state legislature might not necessarily want to impeach Christie, said Harrison — the governor's term ends in 2017, and it'd be much easier for Democrats to run against his legacy than the lieutenant governor's — but they may have no choice given how completely a jury just rejected some of Christie's closest confidants, and the public pressure that may follow that news.
Here's NJ.com editorial page editor Tom Moran in a recent column previewing an argument for impeachment proceedings:
Bridgegate is Christie's white whale, the beast that keeps coming back to take another bite. It was a key reason he lost his campaign for president, and it began his descent in New Jersey. He has paid a steep price. Still, it drives me nuts that he's never been forced to answer questions on this, under oath, and in public.
The legislature could make that happen. And this trial has provided a road map. Bring on the five witnesses who contradicted the governor, and then bring him in.
In the court of law, Christie's record is clean. But in the court of public opinion, he may have already been convicted.