New Jersey Governor Chris Christie knew about his associates’ plan to shut down lanes on the George Washington Bridge as an act of political retribution, prosecutors alleged on Monday during opening statements at the trial of two of Christie’s former associates.
Though Christie is not charged with a crime, prosecutors told jurors on Monday that the associates bragged about the lane closures to the governor shortly after they began. Christie has maintained he had no knowledge of the alleged plan.
The scandal dogged Christie throughout his bid for the Republican presidential nomination, and has contributed to his consistently low approval ratings throughout his second term as governor.
Here’s what we know:
The traffic jam
In September 2013, the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey unexpectedly closed two of three access lanes from Fort Lee to the George Washington Bridge.
The closures snarled traffic for days at the mouth of the busiest bridge in the world. The Port Authority initially explained the closings as being part of a “traffic study,” while local officials and law enforcement said they had been given no warning the lanes would be closed.
In November 2013, Christie was re-elected as governor with 60% of the vote. Democrats quickly began speculating that the lane closings less than two months earlier had been an act of political revenge — Fort Lee’s Democratic mayor, Mark Sokolich, had endorsed Christie’s opponent in the gubernatorial election.
The incident morphed into a full-blown scandal in January 2014, after an email was revealed from Bridget Anne Kelly, Christie’s former deputy chief of staff, that said, ‘Time for some traffic problems in Fort Lee.’ The email had been leaked after it was subpoenaed by the New Jersey Legislature.
Christie immediately fired Kelly and apologised to New Jersey residents, saying he was “blindsided” and “stunned by the abject stupidity” of those in his inner circle.
Bill Baroni and David Wildstein, both Christie-appointed Port Authority officials, had both already resigned from their posts by the time her email surfaced. Wildstein had been the recipient of Kelly’s email and replied, “Got it.”
The associates on trial
Kelly and Baroni were indicted in 2015 and pleaded not guilty to charges of wire fraud, civil rights deprivation, and conspiracy. The pair are currently on trial.
Wildstein, however, pleaded guilty to two conspiracy charges related to the scandal, and is expected to testify against Kelly and Baroni.
Opening statements began Sept. 19, with prosecutors declaring that Wildstein and Baroni “bragged” to Christie about the lane closings as they were happening. The defence attacked Wildstein’s credibility as a witness, calling him vindictive and a liar, the Associated Press reported.
Baroni’s defence will reportedly argue that he is being unfairly singled out, according to CNN.
In an August court filing from his attorneys, a 2013 text message exchange between two Christie aides was revealed that said Christie “flat-out lied” during a press conference that his staff was involved in the lane closings. Christie later disputed the text messages’ claims, telling reporters they were “ridiculous.”
Kelly and Baroni’s trial is expected to last six weeks. While both will testify in their own defence, it’s unknown whether Christie will be called to the stand.
Christie’s political future
While Christie has denied having knowledge of the lane closings, he has admitted Bridgegate has wielded a profound impact on his political aspirations. His approval ratings tanked shortly after the scandal emerged, and haven’t recovered since.
Earlier in September, Christie told MSNBC it was likely a reason Republican nominee Donald Trump did not select him as his running mate.
“I’m sure it was a factor,” Christie said. Political experts, meanwhile, have speculated that Christie would have been the establishment front-runner in the Republican primaries, were it not for the scandal.
Trump himself used ‘Bridgegate’ against Christie during the primaries.
“The GW Bridge, he knew about it,” Trump said during a rally last December. “He totally knew about it.”
Christie is thought to be seeking a spot in Trump’s cabinet, should he be elected in November. Strategists have been weighing whether recent news of the aide’s “flat-out lied” texts jeopardized that possibility.
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