Trump’s Top Aides May Be Witnesses in Bridge Traffic Jams Trial
(Bloomberg) -- A list of potential witnesses in the criminal trial over intentional traffic jams at the George Washington Bridge reaches to the top of Donald Trump’s campaign, with his son-in-law Jared Kushner among those who may testify.
The list of 300 people who might be called to the stand, posted on the website of U.S. Attorney Paul Fishman, includes New Jersey Republican Governor Chris Christie, who is heading Trump’s presidential transition team, and three onetime members of Christie’s circle who now are working to get the Republican businessman elected.
Christie was told about the tie-ups by two allies “who bragged about the fact that there were traffic problems in Fort Lee” while its mayor, who had declined to endorse Christie, tried in vain to learn the cause, Assistant U.S. Attorney Vikas Khanna said Monday in federal court in Newark.
Christie, 54, was never charged and has said he knew nothing about a plot to jam access lanes. On Sept. 15, he told MSNBC host Brian Williams that lingering questions were a “factor” in his not being chosen as Trump’s running mate after he ended his own campaign. In December, while Trump and Christie both were among the field of Republican candidates seeking the nomination, Trump said the governor “totally knew about” the closings.
The list finds Trump, 70, caught in another legal bog just seven weeks before his Election Day face-off with Democrat Hillary Clinton. The Washington Post reported Tuesday that he used more than $250,000 from his charitable foundation to cover legal expenses related to his businesses. A lawsuit involving students who claim they were cheated by Trump University will go to federal trial later this year. He has denied wrongdoing in each matter.
In the bridge case, there are no guarantees that those who appear on the list will be called to testify -- and if they do, whether they can bolster the prosecution’s allegations. Still, for Trump, it’s an immediate and continuing legal headache, with the potential to dog his campaign for the remainder of the race.
“It’s already more, I’m sure, than the Trump campaign wants as part of the story,” said Julian Zelizer, a Princeton University professor of history and public affairs, in a telephone interview. “Having figures including Jared Kushner mentioned in these stories isn’t good for a whole campaign that is premised on making your opponent appear crooked.”
Should anything allegedly damaging about Christie surface during testimony, Zelizer said, Trump would be quick to cast him aside.
“It could short-circuit any chance of his having an appointment in the cabinet,” he said.
Christie, in an interview with Jake Tapper on CNN on Sept. 18, said he “would have no problem if called to testify by either side. But the fact is that I won’t because I really don’t have any knowledge of this incident at all.”
The federal criminal trial started Monday for two ex-Christie aides, Bridget Anne Kelly, 43, and Bill Baroni, 44, who were charged with conspiring in 2013 to cause four days of traffic havoc in Fort Lee. The jams, which started on the first day of school, tied up commuters and delayed emergency responders.
So far, three people on the list of 300 have testified: Fort Lee Mayor Mark Sokolich and Police Chief Keith Bendul, plus Patrick Foye, executive director of the Port Authority. During the first three days of the trial before U.S. District Judge Susan Wigenton, they said they sought answers in vain about the tie-ups from the bridge’s operator, the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey. Sokolich, a Democrat who had resisted three years of wooing for an endorsement of the Republican governor, at one point left a voicemail asking: “Who’s mad at me?”
Another on the list is Kushner, 35, a real-estate developer married to Trump’s 34-year-old daughter Ivanka and functions as campaign manager. Hope Hicks, a Trump spokeswoman, didn’t respond to an e-mail seeking comment on whether the presence of high-level insiders on the list was a drain for the campaign.
Kushner also is the owner of the website formerly known as PoliticsNJ.com, which had been started by an individual so secretive that even contributors didn’t know his identity. That person, later revealed to be David Wildstein, a longtime behind-the-scenes political operator, now is the prosecution’s star witness against Kelly and Baroni.
Wildstein, a Christie ally at the Port Authority, on May 1 pleaded guilty to conspiracy in the bridge case. In his opening statement on Monday, Baroni’s attorney, Michael Baldassare, called Wildstein a “horrible person” who reveled in the role of bully and enforcer.
Also among the potential witnesses are Bill Stepien, a Christie campaign manager hired by Trump as national field director; Richard Bagger, Christie’s onetime chief of staff and now a co-chairman of Trump’s transition team; and Matt Mowers, who left the governor’s office to help Christie’s push in New Hampshire and now works for Trump.
“I have no reason to believe Mr. Stepien will be called as a witness at this trial,” Kevin Marino, Stepien’s attorney, said in an e-mail. Mowers declined to comment. Bagger didn’t immediately respond to a voicemail message.
The bridge matter has consumed Trenton’s attention since January 2014, when leaked e-mails showed that Kelly, a Christie deputy chief of staff, had sent Wildstein, a Port Authority official, an e-mail saying: “Time for some traffic problems in Fort Lee.” Wildstein responded: “Got it.”
New York Governor Andrew M. Cuomo, a Democrat, is among the better-known potential witnesses. So are Kevin O’Dowd, Charles McKenna, Regina Egea, Richard Constable -- all onetime Christie cabinet members -- plus Kim Guadagno, the lieutenant governor.
Prominent New Jersey Democrats who may testify are Hoboken Mayor Dawn Zimmer, state Senator Brian Stack of Union City and Pat Schuber, a former Port Authority commissioner.