Well, now we know what we predicted just a few weeks ago: you disown the geeky kid you knew back in high school – the statistician on your baseball team! – at your own peril.
David Wildstein, the Port Authority appointee who oversaw the politically motivated lane closures at the George Washington Bridge in September, released a letter through his lawyer today challenging Governor Chris Christie’s claims that he was unaware of the closures. As the New York Times reports, Wildstein
described the order to close the lanes as “the Christie administration’s order” and said “evidence exists as well tying Mr. Christie to having knowledge of the lane closures, during the period when the lanes were closed, contrary to what the governor stated publicly in a two-hour press conference” three weeks ago. “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.
Now, just to be clear: Wildstein is not (or not yet) asserting that he has evidence that Christie knew that the lane closures were meant as retribution against the mayor of Fort Lee, and not, as was claimed for months, part of a “traffic study.”
But what he is asserting is damaging and foreboding nonetheless. He is stating that Christie knew about the closures during the four days in early September that they were happening, which contradicts Christie’s evolving accounts of when he knew what. As Ted Mann* of the Wall Street Journal has noted, Christie claimed in a December 13 press conference not to have learned anything of the closures until after the October 1 report of an angry email from Port Authority director Patrick Foye ordering the lanes to be reopened. "The first I ever heard of the issue was when it was reported in the press, which I think was in the aftermath of the leaking of Mr. Foye's email," Mr. Christie said on December 13. "I think that was the first I heard of it. But it was certainly well after the whole thing was over before I heard about it."
At his two-hour January 9 press conference, Christie revised that, saying of the timing of when he learned of the closures, "It wasn't when Pat Foye's emails—I think there was an earlier story than that.” Now, there was one mention of the closures the week that they happened – by the traffic columnist in the Bergen Record. But even it did not appear until September 13, a day after the closures had been called off, and thus would conflict timing-wise with Wildstein’s assertion today that Christie knew about the closures “during the period when the lanes were closed.” And at another point in the January 9 press conference, it certainly sounds like it was not this first early mention in the Record but later articles about the closures that Christie is referring to as the moment of his learning about it all: “I knew nothing about this. And until it started to be reported in the papers about the closure, but even then I was told this was a traffic study.” Even then. As in, after it had happened. And at yet another point in the press conference, he stated even more unequivocally that he did not know about the closure til afterward: “I had no knowledge of this — of the planning, the execution or anything about it — and that I first found out about it after it was over,” he said. “And even then, what I was told was that it was a traffic study.”
Now, even if one were to grant for a moment that Christie was referring to that first Record item, and was thus only out of sync by a day or two with Wildstein’s assertion that he knew about the closures when the lanes were closed, it brings us back to the question that’s hung over this all along: if Christie did know about the closures the day after they stopped, why did the famously micro-managing and in-control governor not try to learn more about them and, having determined they were part of a political plot, call them off? That question looms all the larger following a well-reported New York Times piece this week about just how deeply involved Christie was in his team’s pursuit of low-level Democratic endorsements. This is the subtext of Wildstein's claim that Christie knew about the closures as they were happening: if he knew about them, then he surely knew about them, in all their sordid particulars.
But above all, there is this: we now know that the man at the center of this whole operation has decided to flip against Christie instead of taking the fall. This should not be surprising – Wildstein signaled his willingness to cause trouble when he responded to a legislative subpoena by providing so many damning e-mails and text messages (including one that referred tantalizingly to a meeting between Christie and Port Authority Chairman David Samson just before the “time for some traffic problems” order was issued); and he got a lawyer without ties to Christie, unlike Bridget Anne Kelly, the deputy chief of staff who sent the “traffic problems” order and has secured as her lawyer Michael Critchley, a top attorney with longstanding links to Christie. Wildstein is, quite simply, the ultimate wildcard – someone who seemingly left politics after a brief stint as mayor of his hometown but kept his hand in the game for years as an anonymous and exceedingly well-sourced political blogger, “Wally Edge.” He came out of the shadows in 2010 to serve as Christie’s liaison at the Port Authority, where he was up to all manner of devious political hijinx on Christie’s behalf.
But he was never part of the inner circle – as Christie made clear when he dismissed him so cavalierly at the January 9 press conference as someone he barely saw, and as Wildstein established, very much on his own terms, this afternoon.
Addendum, 7 p.m.: Christie's office has now released a statement asserting that there is nothing new in Wildstein's letter: "Mr. Wildstein's lawyer confirms what the governor has said all along — 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." The key here is "prior." After first asserting that he did not know of the closures until after they happened, and having Wildstein now claim evidence that he knew of them while they were happening, Christie seems to be ceding that fact, that he knew of them while they were happening, but did not know of them before they happened. But again, if they knew of them while they were happening...
* Correction: I initially gave Ted Mann, who led the way on this story back when few were paying it any mind in October and November, a "Jr." He is not a Jr.