Elizabeth Kolbert, staff writer at The New Yorker magazine. Her latest article is called "Red Light."
New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie’s "Bridgegate" continues to unfold, as a legislative panel investigating the scandal has issued 18 more subpoenas. They include one for the head of the state’s police aviation unit, who could offer details about whether Christie shared a helicopter with David Wildstein on the same days Wildstein oversaw the closures of traffic lanes leading to the George Washington Bridge for four days in September. Wildstein was Christie’s former Port Authority appointee. A photograph taken on the third day the lanes were blocked shows Christie walking with Wildstein and other close allies at the authority. Christie has denied having any knowledge of the closures as they happened, saying he only found out when the scandal broke open last month. But last week, Wildstein said "evidence exists" that Christie was aware at the time, contrary to his public statements. We speak with Elizabeth Kolbert, whose recent article for The New Yorker, "Red Light," looks at the Port Authority’s evolution from progressive government experiment to patronage mill stacked with Christie loyalists.
This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.
AARON MATÉ: We’re speaking with Elizabeth Kolbert, who is a staff writer with The New Yorker , where she recently wrote about New Jersey Governor Chris Christie and "Bridgegate" in a recent commentary called "Red Light." Well, the scandal continued to unfold Monday as a panel investigating the scandal issued 18 more subpoenas, including one for the head of the state police’s aviation unit, which could offer details about whether Christie shared a helicopter with David Wildstein on the same days Wildstein oversaw the closures of traffic lanes heading to the George Washington Bridge for four days in September. Wildstein was Christie’s former appointee at the Port Authority. A photograph taken on the third day of the lanes closure shows Christie walking with Wildstein and other close allies at the authority. Now, Christie has denied having any knowledge of the closures as they happened, saying he only found out when the scandal broke open last month. But last week, Wildstein said evidence exists that Christie was aware at the time, contrary to his public statements. Now—
AMY GOODMAN: You have written this piece, Elizabeth Kolbert, that looks at both Governor Christie and what’s—and the Port Authority. Talk about the significance of this now new slew of subpoenas and what they mean.
ELIZABETH KOLBERT: Well, it’s really a fascinating story to watch unfold. And what seems to me to be really interesting about this story is we really have two alternatives, right? One, that Governor Christie was told directly, and, you know, "I approve of this message, I approve of these bridge closings," or he had a bunch of people in there who thought—you know, were acting completely without telling the governor, but thought that this was something that was good to do. Either one does not reflect, you know, terribly well on the Christie administration.
AMY GOODMAN: And the significance of David Wildstein, his childhood friend, who—a statement was issued out of the Christie administration saying he hardly had seen him in years, and then you’ve got this photograph from September 11th of them standing together—and then this subpoena that’s going out to the helicopter aviation unit, the idea that he may have actually flown over the George Washington Bridge to survey the traffic jam, when he says he hardly knew anything about it?
ELIZABETH KOLBERT: Well, you know, I don’t know if you read the—and anyone can access them, the massive documents that were released last month that sort of began this whole slew of news coverage, but there were huge portions that—or, I shouldn’t say huge portions—significant portions that were redacted. And we would all like to know, you know, what were in those redacted portions. And now you have a bunch of people also pleading the Fifth. That was rejected yesterday. That was part of yesterday—you know, in the midst of issuing this flurry of subpoenas, they also rejected the idea of two people, I believe, that they could legitimately plead the Fifth in this case. So, there are lots of fascinating aspects to this that we haven’t seen play out yet.
AARON MATÉ: It’s gotten very comical. After Wildstein came out saying that he had evidence that Christie knew, then Christie’s team came out with a press release saying that—trying to taint Wildstein, saying that as a 16-year-old kid, he sued over a local school board election. He was publicly accused by his high school social studies teacher of deceptive behavior.
ELIZABETH KOLBERT: Yeah, it doesn’t get more, you know, schoolyardy than the schoolyard, really. I mean, we are literally back in the schoolyard. And it’s—as you say, it’s got a really comical aspect. And when you’re in politics, you don’t necessarily want to be the butt of the late-night jokes.
AMY GOODMAN: And yet, when you look at the gravity of what took place, and now the mayor of Hoboken, the mayor of Fort Lee, talking about the retaliation against them—I mean, in the case of Hoboken, trying to get funds for a city that was so deeply affected by Hurricane Sandy—that goes to, of course, the issue of climate change, as well—but having to agree to a local private development in order to get those funds. And then Fort Lee, just being a Democrat who wasn’t supporting the governor, he wanted the news to be massive landslide with a lot of Democratic support. But you talk about the Port Authority and Governor Christie. But the history of the Port Authority, what that means, and its significance for people who might be listening well outside of the range of this city?
ELIZABETH KOLBERT: Right. Well, that, I think, is a really interesting aspect of the story that the Port Authority itself has a long and distinguished history. So, the Port Authority, which controls the bridge, operates the bridge, runs the bridge, and which had to order the lane closings, also operates most of the big transportation hubs in the New York metropolitan area. And it was founded during the Progressive Era. It was really an outgrowth of this belief, interestingly, you know, that we had to take certain functions, these engineering functions, away from Albany and Trenton, which are known as soft of sinkholes of corruption, and always have been, to be frank. And we are going to put it in a very professional agency, and they are going to work in this different way. And they actually did. They completed the George Washington Bridge, for example, below cost and ahead of schedule, something we really can’t even imagine right now. And they were a very professional agency for quite a while. And in recent years, they have increasingly become this place, you know, where people like Chris Christie put people that they want to get jobs for, patronage jobs for.
AMY GOODMAN: And, of course, we’ll continue to follow this issue, Port Authority, from progressive government experiment to patronage mill. Elizabeth Kolbert, staff writer at The New Yorker magazine. We’ll link to her latest article, "Red Light," and also her book, The Sixth Extinction, just out, An Unnatural History.
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