There is evidence that New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie (R) knew about the lane closures on the George Washington Bridge that were orchestrated by his affiliates for political retribution, according to the former port authority official who ordered the shutdown.
The New York Times obtained a letter from the attorney for David Wildstein, a former Christie appointee at the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, that alleges “evidence exists” to prove the governor knew about the closures. If true, that would run contrary to Christie’s repeated claims that he had no prior knowledge of the lane closures.
“Mr. Wildstein contests the accuracy of various statements that the governor made about him and he can prove the inaccuracy of some,” the letter added.
Christie’s office denied Wildstein’s claims, and said the letter “confirms what the governor has said all along,” that “he had absolutely no prior knowledge of the lane closures before they happened and whatever Mr. Wildstein's motivations were for closing them to begin with.”
“As the fovernor said in a December 13th press conference, he only first learned lanes were closed when it was reported by the press and as he said in his January 9th press conference, had no indication that this was anything other than a traffic study until he read otherwise the morning of January 8th. The Governor denies Mr. Wildstein's lawyer's other assertions,” said Christie's office.
Wildstein’s claims open a new chapter into the scandal over the closures, which snarled traffic in Fort Lee, N.J., for four days in September after the city’s Democratic mayor declined to endorse Christie for reelection.
Emails and texts linking top Christie aides to the closures that went public earlier this month raised questions about the level of involvement Christie had in closing the lanes, which is currently the subject of multiple state and federal investigations.
Assemblyman John Wisniewski, the lead legislator on the investigation into the lane closures, said the allegations in Wildstein’s letter are “alarming.”
“The allegations make by Mr. Wildstein’s attorney stating that his client has documents that call into question the veracity of Gov. Christie’s statements, at a minimum they validate the skepticism that many people have had about what the governor said on January 9,” he said.
Wisniewski said he had no idea what evidence Wildstein might be referring to, and that he was concerned as head of the committee investigating the lane closures that Wildstein evidently hadn’t turned over all documents related to the situations despite being under subpoena.
Shortly after the letter was published, The Star-Ledger, New Jersey’s largest newspaper, published an editorial calling on Christie to resign if Wildstein substantiates his allegations.
“If this proves to be true, then the governor must resign or be impeached. Because it will show that everything he said at his famous two-hour press conference was a lie,” the editorial board wrote.
“And not just a typical political lie — this was like a Broadway show of lies, and would leave Christie so drained of credibility that he could not possibly govern effectively.”
The Star-Ledger calls the news “a shocking development,” and Christie “damaged goods,” and calls on him to step down from his position as head of the Republican Governors Association.
Christie has repeatedly declared he had no knowledge of the closures. He fired the top aide named in the emails and texts, while cutting ties with former campaign manager Bill Stepien.
On Friday, The Washington Post obtained a letter from Stepien's attorney declaring that he plans to invoke his Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination when questioned by a New Jersey legislative committee on the matter.
Stepien, Christie's campaign and others have been subpoenaed by the U.S. Attorney as part of its investigation.
The scandal has deflated Christie’s presidential prospects. The onetime 2016 front-runner now lags his likely GOP opponents in surveys of the primary election landscape, and he has lost significant ground in match-ups with likely Democratic contender Hillary Clinton.
On Friday afternoon, without a clearer picture of Wildstein’s evidence, Republicans declined to make a final judgment on the situation.
Ana Navarro, a former adviser to Sen. John McCain’s (R-Ariz.) presidential bid, said that having the controversy “come back to life is certainly not helpful for Christie.”
But she said most Republicans were withholding judgment until more information is available.
“A letter by an implicated party saying he has evidence linking Christie is very different than showing that evidence. So, for the time being, I think we're still waiting and still seeing,” she said.
Florida-based GOP strategist Rick Wilson said it was hard to evaluate the allegations in the letter because they may be motivated by Wildstein’s interest in defending himself.
“This allegation is a chain of ‘ifs’... if true and if proven and if litigated, then this is terrible hit. But given Wildstein's legal jeopardy the desire of his attorney to cash in from the Port Authority just this letter doesn't (yet) have a lot of there, there.”
Navarro did note, however, that “what is irrefutable is that Christie left himself no wiggle room to know anything.”
Frank VanderSloot, one of Mitt Romney’s national finance chairmen, said even prior to the new allegations the situation had raised questions for him about Christie.
“It’s troubling to me, based on my own experience. A leader of any organization has much opportunity to let people know what is okay with them and what isn’t okay with them. Whether Gov. Christie actually had knowledge or not I hope will be determined, but certainly there must’ve been something that he communicated to his people that made them believe that he would be okay with [the lane closures] if he knew about it,” he told The Hill.
VanderSloot emphasized the need for “high moral character” in the nation’s elected officials.
“I hope their investigation is fair and in-depth, because we deserve to know the moral character of our leaders,” he said.
He, like Navarro, said that it’s “awful early to be rushing to judgment,” but if the allegations were substantiated they would make him unfit to run for president.
“It would disqualify him in my mind if he were guilty of that," he said.
— This story was last updated at 6:25 p.m.