JERSEY CITY — Gov. Chris Christie has vowed to “set the record straight” on Bridgegate now that the trial is done.
But his political nightmare looks to be far from over.
The controversy over the closure of access lane to the George Washington Bridge has dogged Christie since just after the 2013 re-election that was supposed to catapult him to the top of the field for the 2016 Republican presidential nomination. It reached a culmination of sorts on Friday, as Christie’s former Port Authority appointee Bill Baroni and former deputy chief of staff Bridget Anne Kelly were convicted on all counts for their roles in the scheme.
But the convictions make further bad news for the governor inevitable.
For one thing, Kelly and Baroni are vowing to appeal. Their storylines — that they were small players in a ruthless administration bent on building Christie’s political career no matter the cost — will continue making headlines through intermittent court filings.
“I said at the start in my opening, she was a scapegoat,” Kelly’s attorney Michael Critchley told reporters after the verdict. “I feel now she’s a scapegoat.”
The governor himself is due in court in Fort Lee later this month to answer a citizen’s complaint against him over the lane closures, which could result in an entirely new investigation.
Until now, the normally voluble Christie has been almost entirely silent about the trial, not once taking questions from reporters over the last six weeks.
His statement following the verdict included a promise to address the damage done to his reputation.
“As a former federal prosecutor, I have respected these proceedings and refused to comment on the daily testimony from the trial,” Christie said in a statement Friday. “I will set the record straight in the coming days regarding the lies that were told by the media and in the courtroom.”
But Christie’s Democratic opponents, too, want to set the record straight.
State Sen. Loretta Weinberg, a Democrat and regular Christie foe, called for renewing the Legislature’s investigation into the administration in light of the trial’s revelations — especially testimony that undermined Christie’s account of not knowing his staff was involved until Kelly’s explosive “Time for some traffic problems in Fort Lee” email surfaced in 2014.
Testimony that Christie was told of his staff’s involvement, despite publicly denying it, came not just from David Wildstein — the Christie-appointed Port Authority executive who was the architect of the traffic-jam revenge scheme and has since turned on the governor — but from Christie strategist Mike DuHaime, who remains a Christie loyalist.
“His claiming that he didn’t know about this until January 2014 is patently ridiculous,” Weinberg said.
Christie’s case wasn’t helped by the man who holds his former job, U.S. Attorney Paul Fishman. After the verdict, Fishman defended his decision not to charge anyone else in the trial. But the prosecution’s witnesses told a different tale of the lane closures than Christie did, indicating he knew about them when they were happening.
“Our position always [is] that when we put witnesses on the stand, we put witnesses on the stand who are corroborated by other evidence,” Fishman said. “We don’t ask people to testify about things when we think they might not be true.”
Prior to the trial, at the Republican National Convention, many attendees told Christie they wanted to see him as attorney general in a Donald Trump administration. He appeared to relish the role in a prime time speech, listing Hillary Clinton’s alleged transgressions and asking the audience, over and over, “Guilty or not Guilty?”
Monmouth University pollster Patrick Murray said that Christie’s confirmation as a cabinet member was already in doubt.
“If anyone foolishly entertained the idea that it was [possible] before,” he said, “I think this verdict would put that out of its misery.”
Now, as Christie is heading Trump’s transition team — making him responsible for recruiting people for jobs in the Trump administration — three of his appointees at the Port Authority and one of his high-ranking former staff members are convicted felons.
“If I was Hillary Clinton, I’d have an ad with Chris Christie’s face, a guilty stamp over it, saying that ‘Chris Christie’s employees are in jail. Now Donald Trump has Chris Christie figuring out who’s going to be in the administration. Don’t let Chris Christie bring his corruption to Washington DC,’” said Seton Hall political science professor Matt Hale. “It’s an easy ad.”
Ryan Hutchins and Linh Tat contributed reporting.
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