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New Jersey bridge scandal snarls Christie’s 2016 ambitions

New Jersey Governor Chris Christie and Deputy Chief of Staff Bridget Anne Kelly (L) stand at the scene of a September 12 boardwalk fire in Seaside Heights, New Jersey. Photo by Phil Stilton/Getty Images

The revelations Wednesday that the September 2013 lane closures at the George Washington Bridge not only appeared to be part of a political vendetta, but that a top aide to New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie played a role in the incident, has thrown the potential 2016 GOP contender’s political future into jeopardy.

The details of the email and text message exchanges between Christie’s deputy chief of staff, Bridget Anne Kelly, and two appointees to the Port Authority, show that access roads from Fort Lee, N.J., to the bridge were shut down in retaliation for the town’s Democratic mayor, Mark Sokolich, declining to endorse the Republican’s re-election bid last year. That contradicted claims by the Christie administration that the decision was part of a traffic study ordered by the Port Authority.

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The Bergen Record’s Shawn Boburg broke the story Wednesday. He wrote:

The explosive e-mails and text messages, obtained and first reported by The Record, sparked a political firestorm that extended far beyond New Jersey and Fort Lee — which was gridlocked for days as a result of the closures — and appeared destined to stretch into the foreseeable future. They also pushed Christie to expand on his previous claims that his office had no involvement in the closures and forced him to join the chorus of outraged officials at all levels of government condemning the messages exchanged between one of his deputy aides and his two executives at the Port Authority.

Christie’s office announced that he will hold an 11 a.m. news conference Thursday in Trenton, where he will take questions from reporters. On Wednesday, Christie canceled a public appearance, and instead released a pointed statement denying any knowledge of the scheme.

“What I’ve seen today for the first time is unacceptable,” Christie said. “I am outraged and deeply saddened to learn that not only was I misled by a member of my staff, but this completely inappropriate and unsanctioned conduct was made without my knowledge.”

Christie added: “This behavior is not representative of me or my Administration in any way, and people will be held responsible for their actions.”

During a mid-December news conference, as questions about the road closures mounted, Christie denied any involvement by him or his staff. “Yeah, I have absolutely no reason to believe that,” Christie said. “I’ve made it very clear to everybody on my senior staff that if anyone had any knowledge about this that they needed to come forward to me and tell me about it and they’ve all assured me that they don’t.”

But the documents made public Wednesday told a different tale.

In one exchange, Kelly wrote to Port Authority official David Wildstein, a high school friend of Christie: “Time for some traffic problems in Fort Lee.” Wildstein replied: “Got it.”

Another series of text messages dealt with apparent complaints by Sokolich that school buses were being delayed by the lane closures. “I feel bad about the kids,” an unidentified person wrote to Wildstein. “They are the children of Buono voters,” Wildstein responded, referring to Christie’s Democratic opponent in last year’s gubernatorial campaign.

Wildstein and Christie’s top appointee to the Port Authority, Bill Baroni, resigned in December amid the growing controversy.

Adding to Christie’s troubles, the Record’s Linh Tat reported Wednesday that emergency vehicles were delayed in responding to four medical situations — including an unconscious 91-year-old woman who later died — because of the traffic caused by the lane closures.

Christie’s overwhelming re-election victory, in which he received support from a large number of independents and Democrats, helped boost his 2016 presidential stock by demonstrating that his brash, straight-talking demeanor could appeal beyond Republican voters.

The New York Times’ Michael Barbaro writes the episode is likely to damage Christie’s image as a no-nonsense politician:

The episode is tricky for Mr. Christie and his aides. His cantankerous manner and independent streak are essential to his White House ambitions; advisers view them as an asset in early primary states like New Hampshire that have a history of embracing blunt-talking politicians.

Now there is a new worry: that what once seemed like a refreshing forcefulness may come off as misguided bullying.

“We like mavericks here,” said Thomas D. Rath, a longtime political strategist in New Hampshire. “But there is a line.”

Politico’s Elizabeth Titus and Maggie Haberman also pick up on that theme:

The longer — and higher — the scandal goes, the bigger a problem it could be for Christie’s national ambitions. The emails underscore the reputation Christie, a former federal prosecutor, has in New Jersey as a bully who lashes out at enemies over slights — real or perceived.

The Christie situation also raises doubts about whether the brusque candidate could wipe away dysfunction in the Republican Party, writes Alex MacGillis in the New Republic: “Christie’s problem all along has not been that he would be seen as too Giuliani, but that he would be seen as too Nixon–a Republican whose curious ideological mix of moderation and conservatism is overshadowed by a toxic combination of insecurity and power-hungriness that leads to a politics of spite and retribution.” While this may not be the end of Christie’s 2016 prospects, his standing has weakened, Macgillis says.

Of course, the reports landed at a moment when the national press is already itching to ramp up the 2016 election conversation. Politico’s scoop on Hillary Clinton’s preparations for a presidential campaign dropped Sunday night, not even a week into the 2014 midterm election year.


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Aileen Graef, Bridget Bowman and Simone Pathe contributed to this report.

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