Even though 2016 appears to be the year of painful, public disqualification from higher office, you may be forgiven for not noticing the extraordinary implosion of New Jersey Governor Chris Christie. After all, the Trump surrogate and White House Transition chair has benefitted from his early endorsement of the Republican presidential nominee in unusual fashion: Christie’s power in the Grand Ole Party has decreased, rather than increased. The likelihood of a plum position in the Trump administration—Attorney General, perhaps, since Christie was spurned as the Republican running mate—is decidedly dim, what with the presently apocalyptic predictions about November 8.
Instead, Trump’s gift to Christie has been shadow: the top Republican’s national meltdown has obscured that of the one-time rising Republican star and sitting New Jersey governor. But make no mistake—Christie’s is a fall of epic proportions, precipitated by an unfathomably petty revenge plot. The contrast of the two, the top-heavy-ness of the fallout compared to the insignificance of the initial transgression, would be comic, were it not so tragic. Remember that in November of 2012, Governor Christie had a 72 percent approval rating. Today, it stands at 21 percent.
While most of America has been busy digesting a nearly-daily intake of sexual assault allegations, paranoid screeds about a rigged election, and a wildly vituperative back and forth between party elders and their Republican leader, Governor Christie’s political career has been quietly, steadily unraveling.
There are some who will point to the governor’s early and eager embrace of Trump as the beginning of his political demise (others may point to his wife’s obvious disdain for the man for whom her husband was putting his reputation on the line), but the ongoing trial of Christie aides Bridget Kelly and Bill Baroni for their roles in the Bridgegate scandal has revealed a culture of craven and unusually vindictive acts (even for New Jersey pols). The testimonies are devastating to Christie’s political ambitions.
Most damning, two of his top aides* (former Deputy Chief of Staff Kelly and former Port Authority official and one-time Christie henchman, David Wildstein) have now testified under oath that Christie knew of the lane closures—ones that would strand thousands of motorists on the George Washington Bridge—in advance. Prosecutors have maintained that the lanes were closed by Kelly and Baroni as retribution against the mayor of Fort Lee, Mark Sokolich, who refused to endorse Christie during the governor’s reelection campaign, and whose residents were most affected by the obscene traffic delays, (the defense teams have maintained their clients’ innocence against nine charges of corruption and fraud).
On Friday, Kelly testified that she reviewed the plan with Christie on August 12, 2013—nearly a month before the lanes were closed for an alleged “traffic study.” This directly contradicts what Christie has maintained all along, most famously in his 108 minute-long press conference on January 9 of 2014, immediately following the Bridgegate allegations—saying he had no knowledge of the lane closures:
“I had no knowledge or involvement in this issue, in its planning or it execution,” said Christie, “and I am stunned by the abject stupidity that was shown here.”
The fact that three of his consiglieres have testified exactly otherwise is very bad for Christie, but it’s perhaps the stuff the governor did afterwards that is unprecedented.
Three days into the traffic mayhem, Kelly says that she and the governor discussed the lane closures at a 9/11 memorial service. By then, Mayor Sokolich was frantically trying to get the lanes reopened, telephoning Christie aide Bill Baroni to communicate his furor. Christie and his team, apparently, found this funny:
“Mr. Wildstein testified that Mr. Baroni delighted in [Mayor Sokolich’s] frustration, so much so that his mocking of Mr. Sokolich’s “it’s maddening” became an inside joke. And Mr. Baroni, he said, bragged to the governor about the scheme at a September 11th memorial service, telling him that there were enormous traffic jams in Fort Lee and that Mr. Sokolich’s calls were not being returned.”
Baroni, by the way, never called Mayor Sokolich back. In his testimony, he couldn’t explain why:
“I have asked myself that question a thousand times,” Mr. Baroni said, sitting on the stand and shaking his head. “I think of it first thing in the morning, the last thing at night.”
There are, ahem, probably a few reasons that the Christie aide did not feel like placating his boss’s chosen adversary. For Baroni, this is certainly abominable behavior, but for the sitting governor of New Jersey to relish in the pain directed at citizens of New Jersey, while attending an event to commemorate the deaths of (among others) citizens of New Jersey on 9/11 is not just illustrative of a robust mean streak: it suggests moral hazard.
Perhaps unbelievably—or, actually, completely believably—Christie allegedly remained incensed when the Port Authority finally succeeded in opening the traffic lanes back up. By Friday, September 13, Patrick Foye, Executive Director of the Port Authority (an appointee of Governor Andrew Cuomo), had succeeded in reversing the lane closures when he was “beseeched” by Christie aide Baroni, to “reclose the lanes.”
Foye reminded Baroni that because of the delays caused by the lane closures “someone could have died,” but Baroni pressed on, urging Foye to close the lanes once again.
“He said the issue was important to Trenton,” Mr. Foye testified. “I took that to be the governor’s office.”
According to Foye, Baroni was undeterred—and tried once more to get the traffic snarled.
When Foye refused, Baroni menaced, “Trenton will call Albany.”
If there was any doubt that Baroni was acting on behalf of governor Christie, on Monday, Bridget Kelly testified she heard governor Christie say on a conference call that he had told Governor Cuomo “to tell Pat Foye to fuck off.”
To be clear: men, women and children had been stranded on the busiest bridge in the world for five days, at the start of the school year, the week of 9/11 commemorations and the celebration of Yom Kippur—inflicting unknown hardship on countless families and offices and businesses. And yet for Governor Christie, this anguish, we are to believe, wasn’t enough. He wanted the lanes closed again and had no use for anyone who thought otherwise. If anyone out there doesn’t remember why Christie failed so miserably in his quest for president, this episode is a useful refresher: Christie is a bully.
On this particular count, the trial has been devastating for the governor. Bridget Kelly may be the one on trial, but she has mounted an emotional defense predicated on Christie being a tyrant. Kelly alleges that she was terrified of the governor: of retribution for not following his orders, of scheduling the wrong meeting, of being shut out of his inner circle. On the stand, she recounted an episode where Christie threw a water bottle at her, as punishment for a tedious request:
Kelly said she was discussing the program for a press conference related to a fire in the Jersey Shore town of Seaside Heights when Christie exploded at her three years ago.
“He had a water bottle in his hand and he said, ‘What the f--k do you think I am? A f-----g game show host,” Kelly said, her voice cracking.
The governor then hurled the bottle at her, Kelly testified.
“I moved out of the way and it hit my arm,” the sobbing mother of four added.
“You're afraid of the governor?” defense lawyer Michael Critchley asked her.
“Yes, yes,” she replied.
“Sobbing mother of four” plus “thrown water bottle” is light years away from the Chris Christie that America thought it knew, way back in 2012 when he was the blue state Republican who rolled up his sleeves and hugged a Democratic president in the wake of a devastating hurricane. Back then, Christie was a straight talker with a heart of gold: screaming curse words at a single mother of four and throwing objects at her was not part of the profile. Now it is.
Christie chronicler and WNYC reporter Matt Katz has been covering the trial in New Jersey, and I asked him whether he thought Kelly’s defense was convincing.* Was it believable that Christie, behind the scenes, might have been so tyrannical? Katz didn’t hesitate in his response:
“It’s highly credible, as far as I’m concerned,” he said. “In his first term, there were literally zero unauthorized leaks to the media of any consequence. There were staffers who would stand behind Republican legislators to make sure they voted the right way! Christie had absolute control. It was the most impressive thing about his governance, actually—how he had the establishment petrified.”
Then again, Katz added, “Some people adored him. He led with a hug and a shiv.”
Either way, Christie’s second term is proving to be quite different than his first one: that blustery charm is nowhere to be seen, and the public has instead been left with stories of brutish cruelty, of power run amok—as Christie himself has slunk quietly to stage right, willfully camouflaged by Trump’s shadow.
To that end, much ink has been spilled on Trump and his hijacking of the establishment, his broad disavowal of facts—a disregard for the norms of democracy that seems to be unprecedented. As it turns out, you can judge a candidate by the company he keeps. And for Chris Christie and Donald Trump, this appears to be doubly true.
* This article originally stated that three of Christie's former aides, including Mike DuHaime, testified that Christie knew of the lane closures in advance. In fact, DuHaime says he only learned of the plot after the fact. We regret the error.
* This article originally misstated that Matt Katz is a reporter for NPR. We regret the error.