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Chris Christie is back in the presidential mix. But what about Bridgegate?

Robyn Beck/AFP/Getty
Andrew Prokop is a senior politics correspondent at Vox, covering the White House, elections, and political scandals and investigations. He’s worked at Vox since the site’s launch in 2014, and before that, he worked as a research assistant at the New Yorker’s Washington, DC, bureau.

There's recently been some buzz that Chris Christie, whose presidential campaign has long been considered an afterthought, could be on the rise in New Hampshire. After all, he's been campaigning hard in the state, won some big endorsements, and has gotten a mini-surge in polls there.

But now, Donald Trump wants to remind everyone why Christie fell out of contention in the first place: the Bridgegate scandal.

"Chris can't win because of his past," Trump said in a Monday interview with WMUR. "There’s no way that he didn’t know about the closure of the George Washington Bridge. And all of his people are now going on trial in the very near future, and they’re going on criminal trial. There’s no way he didn’t know about it."

Trump is, unsurprisingly, misstating the basic facts of the scandal — Bridgegate involves the deliberate closure of two local access lanes to the George Washington Bridge, not the bridge itself.

More importantly for Christie's prospects, though, is that the fact that though Bridgegate certainly doesn't reflect well on his administration, no evidence has publicly surfaced indicating that Christie knew what his aides were truly up to after nearly two years of investigations.

The matter isn't closed yet. Two former Christie administration officials are going on trial for Bridgegate-related charges in April 2016, and the US Attorney prosecuting the case has alluded to "others" who were involved in the alleged conspiracy. But, whether it's Trump or liberals, those hoping for "smoking gun" evidence placing Christie at the center of the scandal have been disappointed so far.

A brief refresher on the Bridgegate scandal

In January 2014, evidence surfaced that Christie administration officials had deliberately engineered a traffic jam in a New Jersey town by closing down access lanes to the George Washington Bridge the previous September. Commuters were stuck for hours, buses couldn't get to school on time, and the town's mayor described the situation as total gridlock. At the time, a "traffic study" was the stated reason for the lane closures — but the traffic study was fake.

Emails and texts turned over to the New Jersey legislature made it clear that this was part of a deliberate plan involving high-ranking Christie administration officials.

"Time for some traffic problems in Fort Lee," Bridget Kelly, Christie's then-deputy chief of staff, wrote in an email. "Got it," David Wildstein, a top Christie appointee at the Port Authority, responded. Staffers also joked about the traffic jam, mocked Fort Lee's mayor, and eventually expressed concern when reporters started asking questions about the fictional study that was the supposed reason for the lane closures.

US Attorney Paul Fishman began looking into the matter, and eventually secured Wildstein's cooperation. In May 2015, he indicted Kelly and Bill Baroni (another Christie Port Authority appointee) on conspiracy charges, as Wildstein made a plea deal. Fishman alleged that these three conspirators were motivated by a desire to "punish" the mayor of Fort Lee for refusing to endorse Christie's reelection campaign, and said that he hasn't ruled out filing charges against unnamed other people.

Christie, though, has consistently denied any involvement. He said that his aides had "misled" him about what had gone on, and maintaned he had no idea why they would have closed those lanes. He also commissioned an internal review that put the blame fully on those administration officials.

So far, no evidence has surfaced that personally ties Christie to Bridgegate

If evidence surfaced to show that Chris Christie had ordered his aides to paralyze a New Jersey town with a traffic jam because its mayor wouldn't endorse him, his presidential campaign would surely end instantly. But no such evidence has surfaced.

Of course, the absence of evidence doesn't prove innocence, but Christie's former aides have every incentive to flip on him at this point. Indeed, David Wildstein's lawyer has suggested that Christie "knew of the lane closures as they occurred" and that "evidence exists" that proves it. Yet that doesn't necessarily imply any wrongdoing on Christie's part. Theoretically, the governor could have been informed of the lane closures, but believed there was an actual traffic study of some kind rather than a political payback scheme.

I suspect that if Wildstein had real evidence seriously implicating Christie, we'd know about it by now. Instead, one report sourced to anonymous federal officials has said that "authorities haven't uncovered anything that indicates that Christie knew in advance or ordered the closure of traffic lanes."

Of course, even if Christie truly didn't know anything, he still appointed the kinds of people who would do these things, which doesn't speak well of his administration. Kelly and Baroni's April 2016 trial could bring ugly headlines for him at the height of the primary season (if he's still in the race by then). And there's another scandal involving another of Christie's political allies, former Port Authority chair David Samson — investigators are looking into whether Samson misused his position to get United Airlines to create a special flight to an airport near his South Carolina vacation home.

None of this looks good for either a primary or a general election campaign. So when Trump says "Chris can't win because of his past," he could well be right. But don't expect a Bridgegate smoking gun to derail Christie's efforts in New Hampshire.

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