For Christie, 'Bridgegate' once again rears its ambition-killing head

Story highlights

  • Christie is New Jersey's governor
  • He's also leading the Trump transition team

(CNN)For as far as Chris Christie has fallen politically over the last three years, there has always been one saving grace: No evidence existed to directly tie him to the incident that sank his presidential ambitions.

Until, at least according to US prosecutors, now.
    It was an unexpected moment during the Monday opening statement by Vikhas Khanna, an assistant US attorney prosecuting two former Christie administration officials now charged with fraud -- the assertion that Christie was aware of the alleged political retribution being carried out by aides. It was one that directly contradicted years of Christie's statements to the contrary, including one as recently as Sunday.
    "I have been investigated by three different entities, two of them led by partisan Democrats, who have all found that I had no knowledge of this incident and no involvement in it," the New Jersey governor told Jake Tapper on CNN's "State of the Union."
    Christie has never been charged and never listed as a co-conspirator by prosecutors.
    But the revelation put forth by prosecutors underscored once again, for all to see, the scope of the political scandal that played the leading role in destroying his presidential ambitions. And his vice presidential ambitions. And, quite possibly, any cabinet ambitions in a Donald Trump administration.
    In September 2013, Christie allies shut down lanes of the George Washington Bridge in an alleged effort to exact political retribution on the Democratic mayor of the town of Fort Lee, who had refused to endorse Christie's re-election. Christie's former deputy chief of staff, Bridget Anne Kelly, and former Port Authority deputy executive director Bill Baroni have pleaded not guilty to conspiracy and fraud charges in connection to the lane closures
    Christie's blanket rejection of any involvement -- and any knowledge -- of what occurred in September 2013 has been consistent and unyielding. Through investigations, both internal and by New Jersey Democrats, and a battering from local officials and the press, the New Jersey governor remained steadfast.
    "How many more investigations do you want?" a frustrated Christie would ask reporters at one point.
    Yet, as if to underscore how comfortable he was in his innocence, Christie still decided to launch his presidential bid. It was an effort that sought to recapture the moment -- and momentum -- Christie was party to shortly after his blowout re-election victory in November 2013.
    But Christie was clearly wounded. He went from leading the party's initial polls to firmly stuck in the middle tier of the pack. And that was before Donald Trump proceeded to run roughshod over the field.
    For a period, Christie appeared to be getting back on track. His favorability numbers, which tanked in the wake of the bridge scandal, started to turn right-side up in the crucial state of New Hampshire at the end of 2015, aided by a major advertising blitz by the super PAC supporting his candidacy.
    But it was short-lived. Even as the issue rarely came up during the dozens of town hall he held, Christie couldn't recapture his campaign magic.
    "I have both won elections that I was supposed to lose and I have lost elections that I was supposed to win," Christie told supporters after his sixth place finish in New Hampshire. "And what that means is you never know, and it's both the magic and mystery of politics that you never quite know when which is going to happen even when you think you do."
    But Christie and his aides, in candid moments, couldn't help but talk about what may have happened were it not for the George Washington Bridge -- an exercise repeated in July, as Trump went through the process of selecting his running mate.
    Christie himself, in an interview on MSNBC, acknowledged that the "Bridgegate" scandal contributed to Trump's decision not to select him as his running mate.
    "I'm sure it was a factor," Christie said. It was a position, aides said, that by the end of the selection process Christie was openly lobbying for -- and one he acknowledged afterward he was disappointed not to receive.
    "I'm a competitive person," Christie said in a CNN interview in July. "When it was clear that Donald wanted me to compete for this job and to be considered, I wanted to win, of course you do."
    For now, Trump advisers say, Christie is firmly encamped inside Trump's inner circle. A confidante and sounding board, Christie has a three-pronged role in Trump's operation: surrogate, adviser and the head of Trump's presidential transition team.
    Trump, in a statement to The New York Times, made no mention of the court case or Christie's potential plight -- instead making clear he had no plans of abandoning the man who provided his first top-tier endorsement in the primary, saying Christie has "been a spectacular advocate ever since."
    He's also gained repeated plaudits for his transition efforts -- a secretive operation that nonetheless has been lauded by lobbyists, donors and GOP officials who have received briefings on its work.
    "It's the most in-shape thing the Trump guys have going right now," one lobbyist who attended one of the briefings told CNN. But many of those looped in on the transition operations have long thought one of the recipients of a top job in a Trump administration would be ... Christie.
    Asked on MSNBC if he wanted a role in a Trump administration last week, Christie responded simply: "It depends on what I'm offered."
    But the question now becomes what can Christie, long considered in the running to be attorney general, can be offered. As one GOP official supporting Trump pointed out: "Trump respects his loyalty -- and that's why he's fine now. But I have a sneaking suspicion Senate Democrats, who he'd need to get confirmed don't care much about that."