A series of newly disclosed emails and text messages suggesting a senior aide and appointees of Republican New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie forced a major traffic jam as political retribution against a Democratic mayor has brought a cloud of scandal over the Republican Party's leading 2016 presidential hopeful.
The communications suggest that Christie's deputy chief of staff and two of his top appointees at the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey closed a pair of access lanes from Fort Lee, N.J., onto the George Washington Bridge into New York, causing days of gridlock in Fort Lee last September.
Christie had flatly denied that his office had any role in shutting down the access lanes, but the emails show otherwise, illustrating for the first time the lengths to which Christie's lieutenants went to bully a local politician who turned against the governor during a campaign that was never particularly close.
Wednesday's disclosure threatens to rupture the national image that Christie, the newly installed chairman of the Republican Governors Association, has been carefully cultivating in advance of a presidential bid as a bipartisan straight talker who puts the interests of his state's citizens above all else.
For weeks, Democrats have alleged that Christie's appointees caused the traffic jam as an act of retaliation against Fort Lee's mayor, Mark Sokolich, a Democrat who did not endorse Christie for re-election last year.
At first, Port Authority officials claimed the lanes were closed as part of a traffic study, and Christie initially mocked reporters and legislators who asked questions about the matter.
But the governor later took it more seriously, holding an hourlong news conference last month in which he denied any wrongdoing. Christie's top two appointees at the Port Authority, Bill Baroni and David Wildstein, both political intimates of the governor's, resigned late last year.
The new disclosures raise legal questions about whether a government agency was directed to take action against one of Christie's political opponents. Included is an email from Bridget Anne Kelly, a deputy chief of staff in the governor's office, to Port Authority officials saying: "Time for some traffic problems in Fort Lee."
Wildstein, one of Christie's close high school friends, responded: "Got it."
Kelly and Wildstein's emails were mostly through personal accounts rather than official government accounts. The communications reveal the gleeful approach Christie's staff and appointees took to the access lane closures of the George Washington Bridge, the world's most heavily trafficked bridge, which began Sept. 9 and continued for four days, including the first day of school.
The morning of Sept. 10, Sokolich texted Baroni to express concern about kids getting to school on time.
"Help please," Sokolich texted Baroni. "It's maddening."
One minute later, a person referenced the text and wrote, "It is wrong that I am smiling?"
"No," another person replied.
Then the first person texted, "I feel badly about the kids … I guess," and the second person replied, "They are the children of Buono voters," referring to state Sen. Barbara Buono, Christie's Democratic opponent in the 2013 governor's race.
The identities of the two people exchanging text messages is not clear in the redacted documents, which were obtained by the Washington Post and several other news organizations Wednesday morning.
Kelly, as well as spokespeople for Christie, did not respond to messages requesting comment on the disclosure. The governor, who canceled a planned public appearance Wednesday, has not responded publicly to the matter.
Fred Malek, a prominent GOP fundraiser who serves as the RGA's finance chairman and is close to Christie, said in an interview that the bridge incident was "totally bush-league" and that the governor is "way too smart for this."
"If indeed his staffers initiated this, I am convinced he would not have known about it — and if he had, he would have stopped it," Malek said. "If true, this is a rookie mistake that has far more risk than reward and would never be considered by a political leader of Chris Christie's sophistication and character."
Malek added, "Not in his wildest imagination would he have considered doing something like this … I don't think there's any there there, and thus it will pass."
Sokolich reacted angrily to Wednesday's email disclosure, saying in an interview with the Bergen Record, "How dare you schedule a man-made traffic disaster in my community? It's the example of the pettiest and most venomous side of politics."
National Democrats immediately pounced on the opportunity to attack Christie. Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz of Florida, chairwoman of the Democratic National Committee, issued a statement that concluded, "Time's up, Governor."
For Christie, the risk is that the bridge incident reinforces his more negative attributes at a time when voters nationally are just beginning to learn more about him as a prospective presidential contender.
"His positive is that he's a straight-talker, a guy who gets things done, and his negative is that he's a bully," said Chris Lehane, a Democratic strategist and crisis communications specialist. "A moment like this, which is easy for people to understand, is going to really drive that bully narrative."
Buono said in an interview that the communications follow a pattern of political strong-arming from the Christie campaign and administration. She said the revelations warrant a federal investigation into Christie's conduct.
"He is the worst example of bully and boss," Buono said. "And this string of emails clearly exposes a web of deceit, subterfuge and arrogance leading straight to Chris Christie."
In Trenton, N.J., state Senate president Steve Sweeney, a Democrat who has been a Christie ally, said an investigation into the bridge incident "must continue."
"The residents of Fort Lee were victim to the worst kind of politics," Sweeney said in a statement. He added, "There are still more questions than answers."
State Senate Majority Leader Loretta Weinberg, a Democrat who has been among Christie's most aggressive opponents and has led the legislature's probe of the bridge incident, demanded in an interview that Christie "take responsibility" for the traffic jam and charged that there was "a cover-up" by his administration.
"This goes further than even I thought," Weinberg said of the emails and text messages. "Who could have thought up a way of punishing an elected official by creating a traffic jam? I mean, it's too bizarre to get your arms around. This is just beyond the pale. Who is he punishing here? My bet is there were Republicans caught in the traffic jam or children of people who voted for Chris Christie."
Weinberg added, "It's at best worthy of parity on 'Saturday Night Live' and at worst disgusting. … It exposes something among our political operatives that is really horrendous."
The communications were turned over by Wildstein in response to a subpoena from state legislators. They show that Christie's appointees and Kelly planned the lane closures for about a month. Although the communications make it clear that Fort Lee was targeted, they do not show a motive — whether Sokolich's decision not to endorse Christie or any other reason.
Wildstein appears to have recognized the political risk of their action. After the lane closures concluded, he shared a Wall Street Journal article questioning the reason for the closures and wrote in an email to Bill Stepien, then Christie's campaign manager: "I had empty boxes to take to work today, just in case."
In the same exchange, Stepien wrote, "The mayor is an idiot." And Wildstein replied, "It will be a tough November for this little Serbian."
That appears to be a dig at Sokolich, although the mayor is actually Croatian, according to the Bergen Record.