NEWARK: Trailing in the polls and reeling from scandal, the Trump campaign is being further embarrassed by a trial portraying a key ally, Republican Governor Chris Christie, as a “bully” and his aides as criminals.
Federal prosecutors wrapped up their case Friday in a six-week trial accusing former aides of the New Jersey governor of unlawfully forcing a major traffic jam on the world’s busiest bridge to punish a Democratic mayor for refusing to endorse their boss’s re-election bid in 2013.
Thousands were affected in the town of Fort Lee, with children prevented from going to school and emergency response times seriously delayed when Christie aides cut traffic down to a solitary lane on the George Washington Bridge in September 2013, prosecutors said.
The scandal was lampooned by Bruce Springsteen on a late night chat show and ultimately cost Christie his then-status as a leading Republican hope in the 2016 White House race.
The trial has spotlighted a bruising political climate among some of those closest to Christie, who is now the chairman of Donald Trump’s transition team should the New York billionaire win the White House next month.
Defense lawyer Michael Baldassare told the court Friday that the 54-year-old governor was a “bully” and a micromanager who “mistreated” his then deputy chief of staff, Bridget Kelly, who is now in the dock.
Kelly and Bill Baroni, whom Christie appointed deputy executive director at the Port Authority, which operates the bridge, pleaded not guilty to nine counts.
A third Christie aide, David Wildstein, has already pled guilty.
“Bill Baroni, Bridget Kelly and David Wildstein shared an intense commitment to the political success of Governor Chris Christie,” prosecutor Lee Cortes told the federal court in his summation.
Fort Lee Mayor Mark Sokolich, a Democrat, was deliberately punished after it became apparent that he would not endorse Christie’s ultimately successful re-election bid, he said.
Their “cruel and callous” scheme “disrupted and endangered the lives of thousands,” the assistant US attorney added in Newark, New Jersey.
They “chose personal and political revenge over public safety,” and repeated entreaties for help from the Fort Lee mayor fell on deaf ears as they ignored his voice messages, calls and emails, Cortes said.
The trio used government money, resources and employees “just to mess with people so they could send a clear and nasty message. That ladies and gentlemen is what makes it a federal crime,” Cortes said.
The case rests on a trail of emails, text messages and phone calls between the three aides, which paint an unsavory picture of the climate in the governor’s orbit.
Kelly was one of Christie’s senior advisers, who saw him daily, sat 20 feet (six meters) away from his office and was “the eyes and ears of the Christie administration,” Cortes said.
Wildstein, the court heard, was a bruiser handpicked by Christie to deliver tough messages to political opponents.
“Time for some traffic problems in Fort Lee,” Kelly wrote in one email to Wildstein. To cover up the crime, they claimed the lane closures were part of a traffic study, which the prosecution called a sham.
“Is it wrong that I am smiling?” Kelly wrote in a text message to Wildstein when told about Sokolich’s complaints.
Baroni’s lawyer Baldassare savaged Wildstein’s reliability as a witness and said his client acted in good faith, believing there was a traffic study and trusted Wildstein, who was a close friend.
Kelly’s lawyer will sum up Monday. Prosecutors will be allowed to rebut before the jury retires to deliberate.
Christie was the first heavyweight establishment Republican to endorse Trump, the maverick New York billionaire trailing frontrunner Hillary Clinton in the US election on November 8.