Midway through his grueling cross-examination, David Wildstein, the mischief-maker who ruined Chris Christie’s presidential hopes, did something shocking: He smiled. Defense attorney Michael Critchley, representing one of the two public officials accused of conspiring with Wildstein to create a traffic jam for the purposes of political reprisal, handed the witness a photo. It showed Wildstein walking next to Christie and gazing into the eyes of the governor, whose arm was wrapped around him. “I was teased about this picture,” Wildstein said, a little wistfully. “When people saw this picture, they said Governor Christie and I were looking at each other in an adoring manner.”
The moment was a fleeting display of vulnerability in what was otherwise a stony and sometimes maddeningly evasive cross-examination performance by Wildstein, the former blogger and political operative who said that he acted as Christie’s “enforcer” within the powerful bureaucracy of the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey. And it was this image — of the mastermind and the governor, locked arm-in-arm — that attorneys for Bill Baroni and Bridget Kelly, the two former Christie appointees who are on trial, sought to imprint on the minds of jurors as they challenged the key witness against their clients.
For the spectators savoring the scene from the gallery at the federal courthouse in Newark, Wildstein’s eight-day turn on the stand was like a tasting-menu dinner, offering course after course of salacious morsels about Christie and members of his inner circle. (Yesterday’s treat: Christie threatened to “fucking destroy” a local politician who insulted him, allegedly saying: “Who do you think you are, calling me ‘a fat fuck’? I’m the fucking governor of this state!”) But ultimately, the trial isn’t really about Christie, who has (so far) escaped prosecution — Baroni and Kelly are the ones facing prison time. The question hanging over the defendants is whether all of the revelations add up to more than delicious entertainment.
As political corruption cases go, the one prosecutors have laid out against Baroni and Kelly is quite odd. They are charged, under an expansive federal statute, with conspiring to “intentionally misapply property” under their care as agents of the government, as well as depriving Fort Lee’s citizens of their civil right to “localized travel on public roadways.” But they aren’t alleged to have gained anything tangible from creating the four-day traffic jam in Fort Lee, except the fleeting delight of revenge. According to Wildstein, the scheme was concocted to punish the town’s mayor, a Democrat who had declined to deliver a desired endorsement to Christie, who was running for reelection. He testified that Kelly, then the governor’s deputy chief of staff, approved the idea — “The governor is going to love this,” he claims she said — while Baroni, his direct boss at the Port Authority, cooperated in “freezing out” the mayor when he complained.
Beyond that, though, Wildstein admitted that it was he who played the central role in devising and implementing the plot, he who cooked up the story that the Port Authority was merely conducting a “traffic study,” and he who coordinated the cover-up, going so far as to meet Shawn Boburg, a Bergen Record journalist whom he often leaked information to, for dinner the night he resigned in an “attempt to continue to spin that reporter.”
“What’s the difference between being a spinner [and] a liar?” Critchley, Kelly’s attorney, asked Wildstein.
“I don’t know how to answer that,” Wildstein replied. “That’s how people in politics deal with reporters.”
Every defense attorney knows that the best way to secure an acquittal is to find a better culprit, and over four days of cross-examination, Critchley and his counterpart, Baroni defense attorney Michael Baldassare, offered one to the jury: politics. Or to be more precise, the cynical brand of politics practiced by Wildstein. Throughout the questioning, the defense sought to show that Wildstein is an amoral operative, a dirty trickster, a disreputable blogger. (For nearly a decade, Wildstein anonymously operated a website that covered New Jersey politics.) The defense raised questions about a litany of misdeeds in Wildstein’s past, ranging from the relatively harmless (impersonating a representative of the actor Alan Alda in the 1980s to raise the Democratic Party’s hopes that he might run for office), to the allegedly corrupt (arranging for a Port Authority job, at Christie’s behest, for a Democratic sheriff so he would get out of electoral politics). Wildstein described making up a story about diverting black voters from the polls on Election Day.
“What’s more despicable,” Critchley asked. “Engaging in voter suppression of minorities or bragging about suppression of minorities?”
“I think they are both entirely despicable,” Wildstein replied.
Although the defense has yet to mount its own case, its approach to Wildstein appeared to reveal the outlines of a two-pronged strategy: first, paint the key witness as a habitual opportunistic liar, and second, broaden the jury’s field of vision, bringing in a cluttered cast of characters from what Critchley called “Christie World” — thereby shuffling the defendants into the background of a crowded group portrait.
Although Baroni and Kelly are cooperating, and have exchanged occasional hugs in the courtroom, the defendants face slightly different predicaments at trial. The case against Baroni relies largely on Wildstein’s testimony that his boss approved everything he did. To date, not a single text, email, or other piece of documentary evidence has emerged that unambiguously supports Wildstein’s claim, so prosecutors have sought to demonstrate that Baroni had to be deeply involved, given his position at the Port Authority, where he was Christie’s highest-ranking staff appointee, and his relationship with Wildstein, who was also a close friend. Prosecutors have introduced phone records that show the two men talked many times a day, and often late into the evening. By contrast, Kelly, who worked in the governor’s office in Trenton, was not nearly as close to Wildstein, either personally or on the organizational chart of Christie World. But Kelly put things in writing — most incriminatingly, an email prior to the closures that read: “Time for some traffic problems in Fort Lee.” As smoking guns go, that line looks like a howitzer.
Baldassare’s task was to prove that Wildstein didn’t really report to Baroni, and was capable of deceiving his boss just like anyone else. He started off by showing a photo of Christie and Wildstein at the governor’s Christmas party, and then showed a text message exchange between Wildstein and a pal that he and Baroni apparently affectionately referred to as “the Chechen.” (From Wildstein’s description, the correspondent could be identified as the Russian-born political consultant and Fox News commentator Julie Roginsky.) In it, Wildstein groused about his boss’s work ethic, saying that without supervision he acted “like when a kid has a substitute teacher.” Wildstein attributed the lack of focus to the fact that Baroni — who had recently come out as gay — was enjoying new freedom. “So ten years ago Baroni was 40,” he wrote, “now he’s 25.”
Baldassare noted that the exchange took place two days before the traffic jam. “These texts were sent at a time when you claimed you were so close to him that you were working with him on the lane realignment,” the lawyer said, incredulously.
After undermining Wildstein’s claim to being Baroni’s good friend, Baldassare tried to prove that Wildstein’s account of the crime had shifted over many meetings with law enforcement, “to try to erase yourself and paint my client into it.” Wildstein, who demonstrated a highly precise recollection under questioning from prosecutors, deflected many of Baldassare’s questions by claiming his memory was shaky. The attorney also pressed Wildstein to explain why, if there was really a conspiracy, there was no record that Kelly and Baroni had ever directly communicated with each other.
“My preference — my very strong preference — was not to create group emails or group texts,” Wildstein said.
“Isn’t it true that the reason you kept them separate is that you could tell Mr. Baroni one thing and tell Ms. Kelly a different thing?” Baldassare asked.
“No sir, that is not accurate,” Wildstein said, calmly.
Baldassare was intent on making the case that, within Christie World, there were multiple lines of authority — that while, on paper, Baroni was the boss at the Port Authority, Wildstein actually took orders from the network of operatives surrounding the governor. He cited instances when the governor’s top aides expressed displeasure with his client for showing insufficient efficiency and toughness when it came to political business, as well as occasions when Wildstein appeared to be giving his boss orders. At one point, he displayed Wildstein’s terse response to an email from Baroni, passing along the Fort Lee mayor’s desperate complaints about the traffic. “Radio silence,” it read.
“So you’re giving Bill direction as to what to do,” Baldassare said.
Critchley picked up this line of questioning when it was his turn to cross-examine the witness. Those seemingly damning emails between Kelly and Wildstein were just water-cooler banter, Critchley has contended, claiming that Wildstein took his real orders from the governor’s informal inner circle. Critchley documented Wildstein’s relationship with numerous members of this club, including, roughly in order of importance to the plot:
• Mike Drewniak, Christie’s former spokesperson, with whom Wildstein had a relationship going back to his time as a blogger. (In one of the stranger moments of the trial, Wildstein refused to explain an email conversation he had with Drewniak at the time Christie was U.S. Attorney, saying: “I’m not going to answer questions regarding an off-the-record conversation that I had as a journalist.”) Wildstein claimed he told Drewniak the whole story about the lane closures after they happened, but well before Christie ridiculed the idea that there was a political motivation at a press conference.
• Kevin O’Toole, a Republican member of the New Jersey state Senate, who was a longtime buddy and gossip source of Wildstein’s, and a prominent advocate of the notion that the lane closures were merely done to improve the bridge’s traffic flow.
• Andrew Cuomo, New York’s governor, who allegedly told his representatives at the Port Authority, who were feuding with Christie, to quiet down about the lane closures after an angry complaint from his counterpart in New Jersey.
• David Samson, the former chairman of the Port Authority and a mentor of Christie’s, who according to Wildstein was informed of the closures some time in advance, and played a lead role in getting Cuomo to go along with the cover-up, at least for a time. (Samson subsequently pled guilty to unrelated corruption charges related to his tenure.)
• Bill Stepien, the manager of Christie’s 2013 campaign, with whom Wildstein frequently communicated about political strategy. Critchley showed that Stepien relied on the Port Authority official — who had a well-known fascination with political data — to research historical trends and prepare vote projections for the governor’s race. And as early as 2012, Wildstein was commiserating with Stepien about a Christie presidential campaign, writing that “at some point hundreds of flags flown over the World Trade Center” — which is owned by the Port Authority — “will find their way to VFWs all through Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina.” Wildstein said he told Stepien he would be willing to move to one of those early primary states in order to play an important role in the expected campaign. He said he also told Stepien about the lane closures ahead of time. (Stepien is now the national field director for Donald Trump’s presidential campaign.)
• Mike DuHaime, Christie’s chief political strategist. Wildstein testified DuHaime was unaware of the lane closures as they happened — and angry when Wildstein told him what he had done — but that he nonetheless assured him there was still a place for him in Christie World, even after he left the Port Authority under a cloud. After he received a subpoena to turn over documents in December 2013, Wildstein exchanged five calls in the course of one day with DuHaime, including one that lasted 72 minutes.
“Do you recall what you were talking about?” Critchley asked.
Wildstein said they discussed many matters, including a job offer he had recently received from Jared Kushner, owner of the Observer and Trump’s son-in-law, who apparently wrote Wildstein expressing support after the bridge scandal exploded. (Kushner had a long and complicated history with both Christie and Wildstein.)
“Mr. DuHaime was a close friend and this was a very tough time for me,” Wildstein said. “Mr. DuHaime was listening.”
Around this time, DuHaime texted Wildstein to expect a call from Christie. He claimed that he was still expecting, after a period, to rejoin the organization for the presidential race. “My understanding, based on my conversation with Mr. DuHaime, was that Governor Christie was calling me just to tell me I was still on his team,” Wildstein said. “I think Governor Christie thought I was good at politics. These days I’m not so sure.”
It seems the call never came, and Christie’s career took another path. Wildstein testified that he informed him about the lane closures on September 11, 2013, during a joking encounter at a World Trade Center Memorial Service, where the governor referred to Wildstein as “Mr. Wolf” — the body-disposing character played by Harvey Keitel in Pulp Fiction. The governor has stridently denied this, saying he hardly knew Wildstein, who was also a high-school classmate, and took no notice of some mention of a traffic jam. (“There is never a day where the traffic report says, it’s free clear and sailing at the George Washington Bridge,” the governor said, sarcastically, on a radio show last week.) Wildstein testified that he had personally conveyed his hope to be involved in the presidential campaign and whatever came after, describing an encounter with the governor at Drewniak’s wedding. “I said to Governor Christie that if you win the presidency, I want to lay claim to the ambassadorship to Anguilla,” Wildstein said.
“Bridget Kelly wasn’t at that wedding, was she?” Critchley said. “Just the insiders.”
It remains to be seen how effective this deflecting argument will be. On the stand, Wildstein appeared cagey at times, and only minimally apologetic for his history of deceptive, reprehensible behavior, but he never lost his cool, and he never wavered from the core of his story: that Baroni and Kelly were in on his crime. After the cross-examination was finished, prosecutor Lee Cortes asked him a series of simple questions, meant to once again narrow the jury’s attention to the defendants sitting before it.
“Who did you speak to on the phone the weekend before?”
“Mr. Baroni and Ms. Kelly,” Wildstein replied.
“How about Mr. Stepien, Mr. DuHaime, or Governor Christie?”
Both Baroni and Kelly plan to testify in their own defense, which is unusual in a criminal trial, so by the end of this case, the jury should hear all three versions of the story. But ultimately, as is often the case, the verdict will probably rest on the credibility of an extremely flawed accuser. “Over the last three years I have been able to do a lot of reflection,” Wildstein said on Wednesday before stepping down, concluding that he’d learned “it is never okay to lie.”
But was that itself a lie?