David Wildstein, as expected, testified in federal court Tuesday that Gov. Chris Christie knew about and, at least, condoned the disruption of traffic across the George Washington Bridge for four days in September, 2013, to punish the mayor of Fort Lee who refused to endorse Christie for re-election. And, as expected, Christie repeated his denials. Now the question is will Wildstein’s tale survive what is expected to be a withering cross-examination by lawyers representing the two defendants in the trial, Bill Baroni and Bridget Anne Kelly.
Those lawyers—Michael Critchley for Kelly and Michael Baldassare for Baroni—have no real interest in Christie or his political fate. They want their clients acquitted and there is only one way to do that— destroy utterly the credibility of David Wildstein, a nerdy and admittedly nasty political trickster who somehow parlayed a political blog into a $150,000 a year job at the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, a bistate agency that, it seems, became, under Christie, a political patronage mill and a source of easy money for Christie’s political allies.
Just how the fates of Christie and Kelly, a former top aide to Christie, and Bill Baroni, a former Republican state senator who became the top Jersey executive at the PA, will intersect isn’t clear. Kelly and Baroni could be either acquitted or convicted without implicating Christie. Acquitted—if the jury believes Wildstein himself was the sole force behind the traffic jams. Convicted—if it believes the prosecution’s contention that the three of them conspired to pull off what seems more like a school boy prank than political intrigue.
Christie himself, of course, has not been charged.
That he has not been charged creates a strange set of circumstances. Christie cannot cross-examine. He has to hope lawyers for Kelly and Baroni—people he might well have thrown under the bus—will destroy Wildstein for him.
And they just might. Because here are Wildstein’s vulnerabilities. Here are his weaknesses on cross-examination and the holes in his story:
Wildstein is an admitted liar.
Sitting only a few feet away from the jurors, he was led by prosecutors through a series of stories that show Wildstein often had only a mild regard for truth. The worst—he lied on his application for the PA job by saying he had a degree from George Washington University. He didn’t. But it should be pointed out that Wildstein insisted Baroni—and, presumably, Christie—knew of the lie and did nothing. That doesn’t help Baroni.
Wildstein uses vague phrases to implicate Kelly and Baroni.
Sure there are a number of shocking emails and texts—mostlyafter the traffic jam began—but Wildstein repeatedly has used ambiguous paraphrases to indicate Kelly’s and Baroni’s involvement. This could be prosecution strategy but it doesn’t produce robust admissions. Wildstein often says Kelly “agreed” with him or Baroni “made me understand he supported what I was doing.” Not much meat there.
Wildstein’s wanderings through the caverns of power seem odd.
For example, although he depicts a conspiracy in which Kelly, Baroni, and Wildstein are conspiring together, he never describes a meeting—or even a conference call—in which the three are, in fact, together, planning and scheming. Wildstein is consistently the link among the three. There has been little, if any, evidence that Kelly and Baroni—without Wildstein—ever talked about the conspiracy. He admits the three didn’t talk as a group but never really explains why.
Another example is Wildstein’s failure to ask Kelly key questions about who is telling her to go ahead with the plan. More than once, he calls Kelly “my boss” and then says, “I didn’t ask Ms. Kelly to justify her decision—she was among those I considered my boss.” There he was, talking with the governor’s deputy chief of staff about doing something that, if not illegal, is certainly dangerous and he doesn’t want to know on whose authority Kelly is acting?
Wildstein also has had lapses of memory at key moments.
For example, the day before Kelly allegedly ordered the traffic jam with the chilling email “It’s time for some traffic problems in Fort Lee,” Wildstein had sent her a message in which he says he wishes to discuss with her something that is “extraordinarily weird even by my standards. “ He told the prosecutor examining him that he had the meeting but couldn’t remember what he meant by “extraordinarily weird even by my standards,” and what they discussed. When Wildstein testified about Kelly’s alleged approval of the plan, the prosecutor asked Wildstein if he asked Kelly that she was “sure” she wanted him to go ahead. Clearly, in briefings with the prosecution, Wildstein must have used that word—but, now, in court, when it counts, he couldn’t remember using that word. He resorted to the ambiguous paraphrase again: “I don’t recall. I clearly recall she gave her approval.”
Wildstein alone concocted the plan to create a traffic jam and arranged to put it into effect.
In 2011, Wildstein notices the three toll lanes dedicated solely to Fort Lee and almost immediately thinks they could be used as “political leverage” sometime in the future. In June of 2013, he tells Kelly “that if she wanted to close down the lanes, that could be done.” Says Wildstein, “She listened to what I said and said she’d let me know.” Then he describes, in fine detail, meeting with PA engineers and developing the plan that would go into effect Sept. 9. Kelly and Baroni seem to have virtually nothing to do with the plan beyond nodding yes to it.
Wildstein describes what almost seems like code talking to show how Christie aides communicated without really saying much of substance.
The most dramatic example is the conversation he, Baroni, and Christie supposedly had at the 9/11 Memorial in 2013 in which Baroni and Wildstein “brag” about the “traffic jam” in Fort Lee and Christie makes indirect remarks about how calls were not returned to the town’s mayor. Even if that conversation happened, a transcript—at least as it was described by Wildstein—would not make a lot of sense to anyone.
And that’s not the only time Wildstein uses code talk. In messages with Kelly in June, 2013, about whether the PA will pay for snow removal in Fort Lee streets, Kelly is quoted as saying “It will not snow until at least November.” On the stand, Wildstein says he understood Kelly meant she wanted to delay renewing the snow removal contract because Fort Lee “Mayor Sokolich was no longer on the governor’s favored mayors’ list.”
Really? Maybe it meant no one had to worry about a snow removal contract in June because snow usually doesn’t start falling in New Jersey until November.
Of course, conspirators use guarded language when they plan something illegal but even a cursory look at Wildstein’s testimony shows heavy use of paraphrasing, few direct quotes, only skimpy meetings about details. An exception proves it—at a face-to-face meeting with Baroni, allegedly discuss the starting date for the traffic jam, the two decide on Sept. 9 because it’s the first day of school. Asked Baroni’s reaction, Wildstein says, “He smiled and said, ‘Fantastic.’”
Such moments are rare in David Wildstein’s accounting of the lane closure crisis. Only after the traffic jams are set in motions, do more detailed descriptions of what happen occur. Conversations get backed up by emails and text messages.
It’s likely many—probably most—New Jersey residents believe Christie knew about the lane closure plan. Count me among them. But what most people believe isn’t likely to determine the verdict of this trial. Or prove what they suspect Chris Christie knew.