NEWARK, N.J. – Chris Christie’s chances of being named Donald Trump’s vice presidential pick may hinge on deepening questions about his role in the George Washington Bridge scandal – like, what happened to his phone?
A criminal case involving two ex-Christie allies took a bizarre turn in recent days as no one can account for a phone he used to send texts during legislative hearings on the 2013 traffic jams. With Christie on a short list of vice presidential hopefuls, the scandal is again in the news as Trump plans to name his running mate before the July 18 start of the Republican convention in Cleveland.
But first, the mystery of the missing phone may play out before a federal judge in Newark, N.J. The two ex-allies of the New Jersey governor are expected in court Thursday seeking more evidence from prosecutors, including the phone, before their September trial on charges that they caused traffic gridlock near the bridge to punish a local mayor.
With Christie’s administration tarred by scandal, his selection could blunt the ethical attacks that Trump will mount on Hillary Clinton, the presumed Democratic nominee, said Bruce Haynes of Purple Strategies, a political consulting firm. The FBI recommended that no criminal charges be filed against Clinton over her use of private email while secretary of state, even as the bureau found that her “careless” handling of official communications could have exposed classified information to hackers.
“You want to keep that contrast as clear and strong as possible,” said Haynes. “To invite someone onto your ticket that has any kind ethical cloud hanging over them could defeat that. The Trump campaign disadvantages itself by blurring any of those lines.”
Trump also faces his own ethical challenges, including pending fraud trials in California and New York over allegations that he cheated students at his real estate school.
The former allies under indictment, Bridget Anne Kelly and Bill Baroni, are pressing for the phone that Christie used to send texts to another top aide in December 2013. The exchanges came as lawmakers took testimony from officials at the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, which runs the bridge.
Christie has said he doesn’t have the phone. A spokesman for U.S. Attorney Paul Fishman said prosecutors never got it, and they relied on the law firm that Christie hired to examine its contents and turn over evidence. The law firm said in a June 28 court filing that it “returned the phone” without saying who received it.
“There should be no mystery regarding who has the governor’s phone,” said Michael Baldassare, Baroni’s lawyer. He wants to examine the phone to see if it contains evidence that might help his client.
Christie’s spokesmen didn’t respond to requests for comment on the phone or his political prospects.
Trump is also considering other Republicans for the vice president slot, including ex-House Speaker Newt Gingrich, Indiana Gov. Mike Pence and three U.S. senators: Jeff Sessions of Alabama, Bob Corker of Tennessee and Joni Ernst of Iowa.
Christie, a former federal prosecutor, could also serve as attorney general or chief of staff for Trump.
“I know that Donald Trump trusts him a lot so the question is whether he’d be better for the VP position or attorney general,” said John Catsimatidis, a prominent Republican donor. “If I was sitting in Donald Trump’s position, I’d be thinking the same thing.”
Former Port Authority Chairman David Samson, who was a close adviser to Christie, agreed to plead guilty to a felony charge related to his use of a United Airlines’ flight from Newark to South Carolina, the Observer reported on Tuesday, citing a former prosecutor familiar with the case. The money-losing flight, which United stopped operating within days of Samson’s resignation from the Port Authority in March 2014, was known as “The Chairman’s Flight.”
A federal appeals court is also weighing a request by media organizations to release a list of people who joined the conspiracy to create gridlock but weren’t charged with a crime. The judge in the case ordered the release of the list but an anonymous person on it appealed, arguing that publicizing the names would ruin his reputation and career.
While the risks of someone with Christie’s baggage would sink most candidates, he may still land on Trump’s ticket, said Matthew Hale, who teaches political science at Seton Hall University in South Orange, New Jersey.
“Donald Trump will go with his gut,” Hale said. “He’ll choose someone he trusts and has a strong personal relationship to, traditional politics be damned.”
By late May, Christie’s approval rating had plunged to a record low 27 percent in his home state, according to a Monmouth University poll.
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