Another day at the Bridgegate trial–another journey through the la-la-land of what now passes for public life in a New Jersey run by Chris Christie and his toadies and sycophants.
What’s happening in that fifth-floor federal courtroom in Newark may or may not tell us whether Gov. Chris Christie knew or didn’t know about the traffic jam at the George Washington Bridge.
But the trial isn’t only about that: It’s about how easy it is to create the Big Lie and get all of us chasing around it, debating whether it ever happened, talking incessantly about what never occurred.
The topic for part of the day was the legislative response to what clearly was an effort by the Christie Administration to use its control over the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey (PA) to advance the governor’s re-election effort in 2013. Lawmakers held hearings and asked one of the defendants–Bill Baroni, deputy executive director of the Port Authority–to explain how things had gotten so bad at the GWB that September.
Prosecutors played video clips of Baroni’s testimony in November, 2013–and then had its prime witness, David Wildstein, explain what was really happening. Color commentary on the Big Lie. The point was clear: Through Baroni, the administration was creating an alternate reality for us in the cheap seats, the seats too far away to see what was really happening.
For example, Baroni tells the legislators the biggest lie right away–this was a “traffic study.” Of course, it wasn’t.
Just imagine the tens of thousands of conversations generated by this whole notion of the traffic study–useless mouth-flapping among the uninformed because, as we all know now, there never was a study. So many people talking about a non-existent phenomenon as if it were real.
In the tapes, Baroni tells the legislators–and us–that Port Authority police officers “met with us” to discuss their concerns about the traffic patterns at the GWB tolls and that’s what got Port Authority executives thinking about the problem.
Hmmm. The cops are concerned. We have to act.
Never happened. No such meetings.
Then Baroni says–“based on these meetings”– Wildstein, then Baroni’s assistant (or, maybe, boss, depending on whom you believe), “requested a one week study based on options provided by Port Authority engineers.”
Nope. Didn’t happen either. What Wildstein was looking for was the best way to cause a massive transportation jam, he says now.
Baroni then talks about the three Fort Lee entrance ramps as an “unfair” arrangement that was put together for other political reasons years earlier. It gives the 4.5 percent of Fort Lee residents who use the GWB–as counted by EZ Pass usage–access to 25 percent of the toll lanes while 95 percent of the other motorists must struggle with 75 percent of the toll lanes.
Except that wasn’t true either. Because people from other towns go through Fort Lee to get to the bridge. These were garbage statistics put together to inflame legislators, Wildstein says.
“It was not an accurate argument,” Wildstein says. “The intent of the argument was to persuade the legislalators that it was unfair…Is it fair that all those people sit in longer traffic every day?”
Baroni–using the Wildstein playbook–was on a roll. No other interstate crossing operated by the Port Authority, he told the legislators, has local access lanes.
Not true. Jersey City streets feed into the Holland Tunnel. Weehawken streets provide access to the Lincoln Tunnel.
Baroni multiplies cars by minutes waiting and comes up with ridiculous statistics. It all seems so real. But it’s not real, says Wildstein–who, he says, should know because he invented the cover story and the statistics to go with it. He was the “fixer,” the “Mr. Wolf” of “Pulp Fiction,” the eponymous “Michael Clayton”, although this is no George Clooney on the stand.
But Baroni presses on with his fictions at the legislative hearing, says Wildstein. All this resulted in a Port Authority policy proposal to study the elimination of local access lanes.
“No, it didn’t,” says Wildstein in court.
Then there was a “communications breakdown” and that’s why Fort Lee and its mayor were caught unprepared.
“It was not a breakdown in communications,” says Wildstein. “It was a deliberate decision.”
Lies, lies, lies. So the debate can rage. The people in the cheap seats won’t pay attention to being shafted if they’re paying attention to nonsense. Reporters write stories without knowing the truth, just relying on the statements of others, trusting those who shouldn’t be trusted. Editorial boards meet and seriously dwell on non-existent facts and come to limp, useless conclusions.
And there’s more. Wildstein and Company find “validators”–people who, whether they buy into the story or not, will put out statements praising Baroni, giving credence to a story they don’t even know is a lie. Police union officials. Lobbyists. Legislators. All thinking they are banking favors in the swelling Piggy Bank of Christie’s political ambitions.
With his depiction of this shameful spectacle of deceit, Wildstein ended his three days of direct testimony. What he said should freeze thoughtful people in fear as they contemplate how their reality is constructed out of nothing more than vivid imaginations and the need to lie.
Now Wildstein faces cross-examination. Lawyers for Baroni and his co-defendant, former Christie aide Bridge Anne Kelly, will try to make him out as a liar. And maybe he is. Well, of course he is. He said so, himself.
But the real truth is some combination of people conned the people of New Jersey into believing the Big Lie so a picture could be created, sustained, of a tough Jersey Guy governor who was going to bring his brand of politics to the nation–just so long as he wins big enough against the Democratic candidate Democrats sold out for, among other things, Port Authority money.
. We might never know exactly who they all were. We might never assign legal culpability to Baroni and Kelly or anyone else. Because the crime really is bigger than misuse of Port Authority assets.
It’s misuse of public trust. It’s fooling us, the people down here in the cheap seats. And I don’t forgive them for that.