Two days before he was sworn in to preside over the US Senate impeachment trial of President Donald J. Trump, the Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts conducted a hearing on a different case entirely: concerning whether two former aides to former New Jersey Governor Chris Christie were properly convicted for running afoul of US anti-corruption statutes.
The Bridgegate trial, as it came to be known, was a result of an extraordinary abuse of power. Christie, a Republican, had set up a series of both rewards to entice and punishments to deter local elected officials in New Jersey.
His particular aim, back in 2013, was to run up the totals of Democratic mayors who had endorsed him during his gubernatorial campaign for re-election that year—to build a record of bipartisan support in anticipation of his own 2016 presidential bid. He went about this by offering inducements such as breakfasts at the governor’s mansion, or tickets to his box at the Giants–Jets stadium, or fragments of scorched steel from the destroyed World Trade Center towers. Thanks to the governor’s largesse with such 9/11 mementos, the mayor of Fort Lee, New Jersey, Mark Sokolich, ended up with more pieces of WTC steel than any office-holder or official body besides the New York Fire Department.
But Sokolich, a Democrat, did not endorse Christie. That was when three former aides of the governor, steeped in this culture of raw displays of dominance, put the Bridgegate scheme into effect. Calling on the resources of the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, they realigned lanes on the George Washington Bridge in a way that specifically punished Mayor Sokolich by creating “traffic problems in Fort Lee.” They refused to take the mayor’s calls when four days of gridlock on the approaches to the world’s busiest bridge blocked ambulances and made children late on the first day of school. (One of Christie’s aides subsequently pleaded guilty and cooperated with prosecutors, resulting in the convictions now being argued before the Supreme Court.)
The traffic scheme also had a more general purpose: to telegraph to every other Democratic official in New Jersey that it was better simply to fall in line with Christie’s political wishes than to cross him in any way.
This type of behavior is precisely equivalent to the conduct for which President Trump was put on trial. He called a democratically elected president of Ukraine, and asked him to “do us a favor though.” That “favor” was to open an investigation that would both discredit the prosecution of Trump’s former campaign chairman, Paul Manafort, and so reinforce Trump’s narrative about the “Russia hoax,” and at the same time smear the man Trump considered was his chief political opponent in the 2020 presidential election: Joe Biden.
Like Sokolich, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky was made to understand that the price for non-cooperation could be ruinously steep: losing vital military aid and an audience with the president at the White House. Trump’s aides, instilled with their own culture of raw displays of dominance, worked overtime to use the levers of government to enhance the power of their boss.
It now appears that both abuses of power will be sanctioned, with potentially crippling consequences for fighting corruption in America.
Already, in 2015, the US Supreme Court issued a ruling that is widely seen as having discouraged the prosecution of corruption. The court ruled that year in McDonnell vs. United States that Virginia Governor Bob McDonnell’s conviction for bribery should be overturned, even though he had accepted $175,000 in gifts, including a Rolex watch, from a donor who wanted McDonnell’s assistance in using state resources to promote a tobacco-based dietary supplement start-up.
Even though McDonnell did things for this businessman, including setting up meetings on his behalf, the Supreme Court ruled that these actions did not qualify as “official acts,” the legal standard that would make them quid pro quo corruption.
In the Supreme Court arguments on Bridgegate, there were zero mentions of the name Chris Christie, or of his campaign, or of the culture of clientilism, favorites, and enemies that the former governor had established in Trenton. For Christie, a line from Lin-Manuel Miranda’s musical Hamilton seemed especially true: “Everything is legal in New Jersey.”
In oral argument, lawyers and the justices stayed on a narrow legal plain: whether government officials should be criminally prosecuted for politically motivated official acts. The term “snow plow” came up a lot— whether it would be criminal for an official to have his favored constituents’ streets plowed before others’.
What was lost in all of this, though, was whether a bi-state agency—with a budget larger than many states—can devote its resources to causing a huge traffic jam with grave costs and potentially life-threatening consequences purely with the goal of furthering the political ambitions of the governor of New Jersey. The less powerful officials in the affair were convicted and sentenced to prison time. The person who conveyed to them that they were on his team and should do what it took to enhance his political career was never charged or prosecuted. Chris Christie escaped consequences.
That the highest executive in the land should never face consequences for his actions is the explicit position of the President Trump and his attorneys, public and private. Last fall, before the Second Circuit Court of Appeals, his attorneys argued in the case Trump vs. Vance that even if the president shot a person on Fifth Avenue in Manhattan, he can’t even be investigated so long as he’s president.
“Nothing could be done. That’s your position?” Judge Denny Chin asked Trump lawyer William Consovoy. “That is correct,” Consovoy replied. He repeated. “That is correct.”
Trump lost his case in the Second Circuit. He appealed. The US Supreme Court will consider that case in March, along with a batch of others about whether his bankers and accountants must turn over his records to Congress, a year after several congressional committees subpoenaed the documents. Here, too, as with the second article of impeachment before the Senate, there have as yet been no consequences for Trump’s obstruction of multiple investigations of his conduct.
This has long been a pattern of the Trump family business, stretching back decades. Whether through lawsuits, or donations to district attorneys and judges and power-brokers, or simply by beguiling law enforcement agents with meals and golf outings, Trump has escaped again and again. Each time, he has learned to push the boundaries further. It was one day after Special Counsel Robert S. Mueller’s lackluster congressional testimony that President Trump called President Zelensky of Ukraine for help with what one former aide called “a domestic political errand” and what Trump’s national security adviser called a “drug deal.” The president’s allies in Congress argued vociferously that that, too, was fine.
It’s hard to chart what will follow, with a Congress that won’t impeach, and a Supreme Court, presided over by the same John Roberts who gaveled the impeachment trial, that seems poised to further narrow the scope of corruption prosecutions and even to agree that a president has absolute immunity from investigation so long as he remains in office. But it would certainly be reasonable to conclude that for Trump the Hamilton lyric should be rewritten:
Everything is legal. If you’re president.
Andrea Bernstein, who won a Peabody award for her work uncovering abuses of power in the Bridgegate scandal, is the author of American Oligarchs: The Kushners, the Trumps, and the Marriage of Money and Power (2020) and the co-host of the Trump, Inc. podcast from WNYC and ProPublica. (January 2020)