With the convictions of two ex-aides on counts including conspiracy and fraud, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie -- already at a record low 21% approval level -- now risks going into political free fall. Christie, who is chairman of Donald Trump's transition team, has arrived at a level of unpopularity that will make it hard for him to run the state or salvage a power position in a possible Donald Trump White House.
Christie's former deputy chief of staff Bridget Kelly and Bill Baroni, the former deputy executive director of the Port Authority of New York/New Jersey, face up to 86 years in prison
. Prosecutors and defendants alike agreed that the illegal scheme the pair cooked up in 2013 -- the closure of critical lanes of the George Washington Bridge -- was a way to deliberately create snarled traffic to punish the mayor of Ft. Lee (a tiny town near the bridge) for not endorsing Christie's re-election bid that year.
"Time for some traffic problems in Ft. Lee," read a fateful memo by Kelly, part of the evidence that convicted her. Shutting down several lanes on the bridge -- the busiest crossing in America, carrying more than 100 million vehicles a year -- triggered a crisis that immobilized commuters and emergency vehicles in Ft. Lee for hours on end, day after day.
As the dangerous disaster continued, Kelly and her co-defendant Baroni, according to prosecutors, reveled in the distress caused by the snarled traffic and refused to accept or return the phone calls of the increasingly desperate mayor. After the plot came to light, Kelly and Baroni claimed the lane closures were part of a traffic study, a falsehood that was denied by Port Authority officials and rejected by the jury.
And while Christie was never called to testify in the case, the prosecution's star witnesses said under oath that Christie was told about the jammed up lanes while the crisis unfolded. The governor denies knowing anything about what his aides were up to.
For now, Christie remains in his post with the Trump campaign; he is tasked with lining up some of the hundreds of core appointees needed to staff a new administration if Trump wins. But it's safe to say the convictions have gravely wounded him, perhaps beyond repair.
As Trump loudly denounces his Democratic opponent Hillary Clinton as ethically challenged ("crooked Hillary," he calls her daily), Christie's continued service makes it easy for Clinton to point the finger back at Trump and ask why his transition is run by a politicians whose top aides were just convicted of corruption.
And locally, the convictions add to Christie's already-strained relationship with New Jersey's Republican Party. For years, local officials grumbled while Christie criss-crossed the country to set up a run for president; the state party spent $230,000 on plane flights for Christie, only to see him drop out after placing sixth in the New Hampshire primaries.
Worse still, Christie's presidential hopes led him to move to the right on immigration policy, gun control and other issues, saddling the state party with unpopular positions that will be hard to sell in relatively moderate New Jersey in the 2017 gubernatorial election.
"What I will say as a Republican is that the Christie era is both infuriating and sad at the same time," says Jack Ciattarell
i, a state lawmaker hoping to succeed the term-limited Christie. He'll have his work cut out for him.
The corruption convictions represent a fearful price paid by Christie's aides to advance his political fortunes. It now seems clear that Christie himself, and New Jersey Republicans, will have to pay the price as well.