American Governor: Chris Christie’s Bridge to Redemption follows the New Jersey governor’s career from his early days as a federal prosecutor to his pursuit of the presidency. In this excerpt, author Matt Katz takes us back to the day the public learned that the governor’s closest advisors allegedly masterminded the George Washington Bridge lane closures of September 2013 as political retribution against Fort Lee mayor Mark Sokolich. Through his own reporting and court documents, Katz reveals the shock waves that rippled through Christie’s inner circle as the news spread.
Journalist Matt Katz has been covering the Christie Administration for five years, first with the Philadelphia Inquirer, and now for radio station WNYC and New Jersey Public Radio. In 2015, he was part of a reporting team from WNYC that won a Peabody Award for its reporting on Bridgegate. His new book, American Governor: Chris Christie’s Bridge to Redemption, is due January 19 from Simon & Schuster.
I was working on an NPR story about an escalating traffic-jam scandal that I was scheduled to record in a couple of hours at the nearby studios for WHYY public radio. I ordered hot coffee and shakshuka—poached eggs, tomato sauce, chili peppers, and onions all mushed around into deliciousness.
I still think about that meal. Because I never ate a bite.
As I sat down in front of my laptop a story flashed across my screen. Shawn Boburg of the Record in Bergen County had just dropped the scoop of his life.
Governor Christie’s deputy chief of staff told one of his top Port Authority executives that it was “time for some traffic problems in Fort Lee” several weeks before controversial lane closures took place at the George Washington Bridge, according to sources.
About a week before, Boburg was tipped off to the existence of an e-mail reading “time for some traffic problems in Fort Lee.” Boburg knew that it was written by a woman from the governor’s office, but he didn’t know her name. Was it Lieutenant Governor Kim Guadagno? Was it communications chief Maria Comella?
Then he asked his source: “Wouldn’t it be weird if it was a person who had the word ‘bridge’ in her name?”
The source laughed. Bingo. It was Bridget Anne Kelly.
Soon enough Boburg got a copy of the actual e-mail, which had Kelly’s name right on it. Then he got the green light to go ahead with the story.
Boburg sat at his computer at home in Newark and started typing the article on the night of January 7. At 3 or 4 am, after finishing working through the story with his editors, Boburg sent an e-mail to the newspaper’s chief lawyer, Jennifer Borg, a scion of the family that owned the newspaper. He wanted to let her know what was coming.
About 8 am, Boburg called Kelly on her cell phone. Kelly was on a conference call for work but she picked up, thinking the call might be about one of her four children. Kelly didn’t recognize the voice. She had never before spoken to Boburg. He introduced himself.
“I’ve got an e-mail from you to David Wildstein, and it says, ‘Time for some traffic problems in Fort Lee,’ ” Boburg said. “I’m writing a story about it. Do you want to comment?”
There was silence. Then stammering. This was the very call that Kelly had feared for four months. “I’m literally in the middle of a conference call,” she told Boburg. “I can’t do this right now. I’m going to have to call you right back.” Kelly hung up on him.
Boburg’s next call was to Michael Drewniak, the governor’s spokesman. Boburg told Drewniak that the paper had also obtained e-mails between him and Wildstein.
Drewniak cautioned Boburg to be careful with the story. “This is explosive stuff,” he said.
At 9:13 am, Boburg posted his story online. A few minutes later, Democratic staffers from the state Legislature began sending reporters the “time for some traffic problems” e-mail and a trove of other documents that Wildstein had supplied in response to his subpoena. Democrats had been investigating the mysterious September 2013 lane closures at the busiest bridge in the world for months now, but this was the first piece of hard evidence they had indicating the lanes were closed to cause a traffic jam—not for a traffic study, as Wildstein and Christie had claimed, but for political motives.
Kelly got off the phone with Boburg and called Drewniak. He didn’t answer. So she called Comella.
Comella was at her apartment in New York City on a work call when Kelly’s name kept popping up on caller ID. She finally picked up. Kelly was freaking out, saying she had just gotten a call from this reporter at the Record, she didn’t know his name, and he was writing a story about one of her e-mails. “I don’t know what to do,” Kelly told Comella. “He said it was going to be a big story. And he wanted me to comment.”
“Who’s his source?” Comella asked.
“I don’t know. I’m sorry. I’m so sorry, Maria.”
“Stay where you are. I’ll call you back.”
Comella was the calm in any storm; only her occasional nail biting, standing on the side of the room scanning the scene during press conferences, betrayed the stress of managing a larger-than-life political force every day. As the final gatekeeper between Christie and the rest of the world, she was his most important governmental aide. And so it fell to her to make the call.
Christie had just finished a morning workout at home with his trainer. He got out of the shower and picked up his cell.
It’s bad, Comella told him.
The governor pulled out his iPad, and together they read Boburg’s story online.
The governor remembers feeling sick to his stomach.
“What should I do?” Christie asked Comella.
They made a plan to meet at Drumthwacket.
The news spread. Top Christie staffers were throughout the state when they heard—at home, in Trenton, at a New Jersey Transit board meeting in Newark. Via BlackBerries, the revealing e-mails were passed around, each PDF presenting a new wallop of shock.
Because it wasn’t just the “time for some traffic problems in Fort Lee” e-mail. There were all kinds of e-mails between Wildstein and Kelly, including this e-mail—“Is it wrong that I’m smiling?”—that Kelly sent after finding out that school buses were stuck in traffic.
“They are the children of Buono voters,” Wildstein had responded, referring to Christie’s opponent in the 2013 election, state Senator Barbara Buono, a Democrat.
In those few e-mails, it was clear that a) Fort Lee was being punished, and b) the reason was ugly politics. The question then became: So who else knew?
“Meeting with Trump today,” Mike DuHaime told his old buddy David Wildstein when he called him first thing that morning. Not too long ago, back in the ’90s, DuHaime and Wildstein were running local state Assembly races. Now here DuHaime was, on the verge of helping to guide Christie’s presidential campaign—and meeting with Donald Trump about the billionaire’s possible run for governor of New York.
DuHaime first met Christie in 1997 and began working for him in 2009 under the title “chief strategist.” The son of a former New Jersey mayor, DuHaime had run New York City mayor Rudy Giuliani’s presidential campaign. That’s where he met Comella, whom he recruited to the Christie campaign. Like a general manager for a baseball club, DuHaime started building the Christie Team, bringing on his old friend Bill Stepien as campaign manager. Together they would formulate the path to 2016.
After his call with Wildstein, DuHaime stopped at the Clifton Diner, where he was scheduled to have breakfast with Alfred Doblin, editorial page editor of the Record. He walked into the diner blissfully unaware—until Doblin handed over his phone so he could read the breaking news on the newspaper’s website.
DuHaime read the story. Then the governor called. DuHaime went outside to talk.
Come to Drumthwacket, Christie told him.
DuHaime, Comella, and Kevin O’Dowd were all at Drumthwacket—a mansion that had been bequeathed to the state by the real Wally Edge, the former governor whose name Wildstein had borrowed for his political blog. O’Dowd had put the call out to get everyone in the inner circle over there—Port Authority chairman David Samson, brother Todd Christie, and adviser Bill Palatucci. They started arriving around noon, seated around a large table on the second floor.
As those in the room would retell it, Christie didn’t know, for sure, whom to trust nor whom to blame. That made him nervous, and emotional. He cried, and asked again if anyone had anything to do with this.
They denied it. Each and every one.
So then they began looking outward from that room.
Michael Drewniak, who had been Christie’s chief spokesman since his U.S. attorney days, was summoned. For 2½ hours, Drewniak was interrogated by colleagues-turned-investigators: Christie attorney Paul Matey, a former federal prosecutor who had worked with Christie at the U.S. Attorney’s Office, and Chris Porrino, who was in his first day as Christie’s chief counsel.
After the questioning, Porrino and Matey had Drewniak wait in the room for 15 long minutes while they went over their findings with Christie. Christie came into the room, and said he had reached a verdict. “I’ve talked this through fully, and they’ve reported back to me,” Christie told Drewniak. “I’m comfortable with, at this point, that you had no involvement in this. You’re good.” Christie enveloped Drewniak in a warm hug. He told him: “You’re okay. I love you.”
Drewniak then went to the table in Wally Edge’s old dining room, joining the rest of the group at the big table.
Unlike the decision to retain Drewniak, firing Kelly required little discussion. Comella told Christie she had to go; so did O’Dowd, Kelly’s formerly supportive boss. They considered talking to her about everything first, to get some more information, but the lawyers in the room saw a potential land mine. They didn’t want charges of interference. Perhaps they didn’t want to know anything else, given the legal scrutiny.
The job of firing Kelly fell to Porrino, a man whom Kelly had never before worked with, with an assist from Matey.
Kelly waited at home before finding out her fate. At nine the next morning, the men called to fire her.
She asked that her personal items not be sent to her house—there were too many news trucks gathered outside. A feeding frenzy on everything Kelly-related had commenced. Soon enough, reporters found a picture on Kelly’s Twitter feed of her celebrating her 40th birthday party with the governor himself.
Back in Kelly’s old office in Trenton, her former staffers were told by Christie’s top lawyers: DO NOT DELETE ANYTHING.
A lot of tears were shed in that office that day.
Over at Drumthwacket, DuHaime might have been the most uncomfortable. He was friends with just about everyone involved. Perhaps DuHaime’s closest friend in Christie’s world was Stepien, whom he had met back at that ice rink in Central Jersey when Stepien was just a teenager. Just two months earlier Stepien and DuHaime had navigated Christie to a massive reelection win and then, victorious and inseparable, they took a victory lap at a hotel in Arizona where Christie was anointed chairman of the Republican Governors Association. Together, DuHaime and Stepien were supposed to lead Christie’s presidential campaign.
But now here DuHaime was at Drumthwacket, not Stepien. This critical member of the inner circle—said to be like a son to the governor—was under suspicion because of his e-mails with Wildstein. In one, Stepien called Fort Lee mayor Mark Sokolich an “idiot,” and Wildstein responded by incorrectly referring to Sokolich’s Croatian heritage: “It will be a tough November for this little Serbian.”
Christie dispatched DuHaime to go meet with Stepien, suss out what he knew. DuHaime left Drumthwacket for the thankless mission.
At the Corner Bakery restaurant on Route 1 near Drumthwacket, DuHaime advised his friend Stepien to hire an attorney because the Democrats were going to subpoena him. Stepien said he wasn’t involved in this scandal one bit—and he was outraged that he couldn’t talk to the governor to make his case. Remarkably private, even to his friends, Stepien acknowledged a relationship with Kelly, but he characterized it as a summer fling and said it had ended before the lanes closed.
DuHaime asked if he thought Kelly was lying when she had told them that she wasn’t involved in this.
Yes, Stepien said.
DuHaime told Stepien that there was talk of his being forced out of the Christie operation. The tone of the e-mails made the governor question whether he could trust him anymore.
Stepien noted that nothing linked him to the planning, execution, or cover-up of the lane closures. Stepien’s explanation was that he was trying to comfort Wildstein by sympathetically attacking Sokolich—after all, his traffic study idea had just blown up in his face. Would this governor—who, by the way, has the pottiest of potty mouths—really nail him on calling the mayor an “idiot”?
Stepien’s behavior did beg questions about whether he knew that something was amiss sooner than he had let on and, if so, why he hadn’t done anything about it. Why hadn’t he just told Wildstein “no” when he first brought up this meshuga idea about lane closures months earlier? Why didn’t he foil this rogue plot?
These questions were now swarming around Stepien. He was deemed politically toxic.
After their meeting DuHaime returned to Drumthwacket, where he argued to keep Stepien in the fold. He said that Stepien had done nothing related to the lane closures.
Others were spared, after all. Port Authority chairman Samson, for example, was implicated in one e-mail as perhaps retaliating against New York officials after the lanes were reopened. And he was keeping his job.
Stepien became the closest casualty to the governor. Worst of all for Stepien was that Christie didn’t fire him in person. Instead his friend DuHaime did the dirty work. This was not Abraham at the mount sacrificing his son; this was Abraham passing the job off to Ishmael.
Wildstein e-mailed Drewniak late that night. The subject line was “Serbian.” He asked Drewniak about Sokolich’s appearance that day on CNN: “Did you see that bastard hamming it up on Wolf Blitzer?”
Drewniak couldn’t believe it. He thought it was some kind of trap. Was Wildstein trying to make it seem as if Drewniak was involved if and when these messages were subpoenaed? Or was he really expecting Drewniak to be sympathetic?
Drewniak sent the e-mail to the lawyers in Christie’s office. He was furious at Wildstein, for everything, and wrote this to his twin sister that night: “I could claw his eyes out, pour gasoline in the sockets, and light him up.”
The headlines that Christie woke up to the next day were brutal.
“Christie stuck in jam over GWB lane closings,” read the Record. In its opening paragraph, the article said the “vindictive lane closures”…“plunged the administration into a deep crisis on Wednesday, threatening Christie’s national profile as a straight-talker and feeding criticism that his administration has used its power to bully political enemies.” The article went on to quote Buono, the Democrat whom Christie had so easily beaten for reelection, calling Christie’s staffers “terrible people.”
The New York Times used four of its six columns at the top of the front page with a bolded, italicized headline: “CHRISTIE FACES SCANDAL ON TRAFFIC JAM.” The headline was attached to a picture of a grim-faced Christie, an infographic laying out the gory details, and a sidebar, “Carefully Tended No-Nonsense Image in Peril.”
Even Republicans were ready to indict him, with talk show host Rush Limbaugh saying: “The point of the story is that Christie will do payback. If you don’t give him what he wants, he’ll pay you back.”
Christie would have a press conference to lay it all out there. Comella wrote talking points for an opening statement that would be followed by questions until there weren’t any questions left to ask.
I arrived 45 minutes early and the hallways in front of the governor’s office were already jammed with famous national TV faces and bulky cameras. I thought I might not even get in, but Christie’s communications team corralled the local reporters and let us cut the line. Given the circumstances, this was a nice gesture.
Would Christie actually apologize? One person who knows him well told me he was “constitutionally unable to say he’s wrong” about anything. He had publicly apologized only once in his years as governor, and that was after a statement he made about gay marriage that was deemed offensive to 1960s civil rights activists. He had never apologized for an action of his government.
Christie emerged in a pin-stripe suit, red tie, and white shirt. He looked gray. He looked exhausted. He looked depressed.
The first thing he did was, indeed, apologize: “I come out here today to apologize to the people of New Jersey. I apologize to the people of Fort Lee and I apologize to the members of the state Legislature. I am embarrassed and humiliated by the conduct and behavior of some of the people on my team.”
He said he fired Kelly “because she lied to me.” He said he was “heartbroken” that he was “betrayed.”
Christie took more questions. And more questions. He delivered an epic performance. Modern politics had never seen such a thing. He revealed vulnerability, explaining in depth about how he was second-guessing himself over the last 24 hours or so. But he appeared much more upset with the lies than the crime itself. “There’s a lot of soul-searching that goes around with this,” he said. “I’m sick over this. I’ve worked for the last 12 years in public life developing a reputation for honesty and directness and blunt talk, one that I think is well-deserved.”
Even though Sokolich had been so heavily courted for his endorsement, even though they had dined together, Christie said he couldn’t “pick him out of a lineup.” Christie even seemed to have trouble, at one point, pronouncing his name. “I never even knew that we were pursuing his endorsement,” he said.
Christie also aggressively distanced himself from Wildstein, downplaying how much they had hung out both in high school and government. Yes, they went to high school together, but they were not friends—“not even acquaintances.” He said: “You know, I was the class president and an athlete. I don’t know what David was doing during that period of time.” (In fact, while Christie played high school baseball, Wildstein was a statistician on the team.)
The press conference kept going. This would become, as far as anyone knew, the longest political press conference in modern American history.
He was humbled as I had never imagined he could be. He was uncharacteristically patient with reporters, allowing follow-ups and gently explaining that calling out questions was against the rules. “I didn’t quite understand your question,” he politely said to one reporter. “I had trouble hearing you, too.”
And when someone asked a question I had just asked, he calmly repeated the answer instead of castigating the journalist for not paying attention. Who was this guy? One thing was familiar—his eyes. I hadn’t seen his eyes that heavy since Superstorm Sandy.
Nearly 94 minutes in, he got his most emotional. His voice was raw now. His left arm was on the lectern, he was leaning into the mic. “I am a very sad person today,” he said. “That’s the emotion I feel…I’m a sad guy standing here today.”
And yet this was still Chris Christie. He was able to draw a laugh, when asked if he still thought there should be a traffic study of the local Fort Lee lanes. “You think I’m suggesting any traffic studies anytime soon? Ya gotta be kidding me! I don’t want a traffic study in front of my house, Marcia,” he said. “I think I’m out of the traffic study business for certain.”
Only after leaving the room did he realize the press conference had lasted 12 minutes shy of two hours.
As the governor’s press conference was taking place a related drama was under way on the other side of the Statehouse. Wildstein was scheduled to appear before the Assembly Transportation Committee to testify under oath.
In fact, that hearing was already supposed to have started, but Christie’s press conference kept going and going, keeping Democrats on the legislative side of the Statehouse glued to two TV screens. They couldn’t step away, so they delayed the hearing. These Democrats, having seen the losing side of so many wars against Christie, having thought they had him dead to rights so many times only to see him resurrect himself and emerge stronger, thought this was it, here he was, finally getting his. And it was all because of a traffic jam. God bless New Jersey.
Earlier that morning Wildstein’s lawyer had gone to Mercer County Superior Court across the street to try to wiggle Wildstein out of this subpoena for testimony. He had already provided the legislature 907 pages of documents, but the Democrats wanted actual testimony to help them connect some dots. A judge denied Wildstein’s request to reject the subpoena. So he went to the Statehouse to testify.
Wildstein was bespectacled, chubby-faced, and stoic. Assemblyman John Wisniewski swore Wildstein in under oath and then asked him to spell his name. He asked him what town he lived in. And he asked him whether he was currently employed. “No,” Wildstein responded.
Then Wildstein stopped talking entirely. “On the advice of my counsel, I respectfully assert my right to remain silent under the United States and New Jersey constitutions,” he said. Even though he had answered one part of the subpoena (providing documents), when it came to the testimony part Wildstein would exercise his Fifth Amendment right not to incriminate himself.
In the middle of Christie’s epic press conference, he announced he would go to Fort Lee to apologize to the mayor personally.
That message had already gotten to Fort Lee, where Mayor Sokolich was holding his own press conference and saying he wasn’t ready to see the governor. He called such a trip “premature.” I read this quote on Twitter, and then immediately asked Christie about it.
His response was that he was going to come anyway, even if the mayor wouldn’t see him. That message was then tweeted and transmitted to Fort Lee, where a reporter then read Christie’s answer to Sokolich.
“Send back the message to Trenton: I’ve reconsidered. Come on up,” Sokolich said.
The governor took a helicopter to North Jersey. He walked up the stairs of Fort Lee Borough Hall and into Sokolich’s office, which was decorated with three pictures of the George Washington Bridge. Sokolich’s wife, the police chief, the town attorney, and the town administrator were all there, ready to greet the governor.
Christie delivered his apology. Sokolich accepted. At one point, Sokolich made a joke about Christie having said that Sokolich wasn’t on his radar screen.
“Governor, am I on your radar?” Sokolich asked.
“We now have our own screen,” Christie said.
They sure did. The cable networks covered the official delivery of the apology live. Dozens of Fort Lee residents showed up at the scene, with some thanking Christie for apologizing and others making their grievances known.
While Sokolich forgave the governor (“I’m a forgiving guy,” he said), that didn’t change what had happened. “When you read about yourself being called an ‘idiot,’ when you read about yourself being called a ‘little Serb,’ ya know, it hurts,” he said. “It does, it hurts. We didn’t sign up for this. We signed up to build Little League fields and lower taxes here. That was our job. We’re local government.”
Sokolich also questioned the governor’s assertion that his leadership style wasn’t at issue. “It appears that the great latitude that the governor provides his inner circle, apparently they’ve taken it to a level they shouldn’t have taken it—to venomous, petty, political politics,” he said.
Late that night Drewniak, Christie’s spared spokesman and Wildstein’s former friend, wrote a colleague an e-mail ruminating on Wildstein. “He was always mysterious, intense, but a nebbish nonetheless, who blew you away with his knowledge of politics and political history and his sense of loyalty,” Drewniak wrote.
“How he ended up f–king up so many people’s lives I’ll never understand.”
Adapted from American Governor: Chris Christie’s Bridge to Redemption. Copyright © 2016 by Simon & Schuster.Click here to leave a comment