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Closing Arguments Begin In New Jersey Bridgegate Trial

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

The case against two former top employees of New Jersey Governor Chris Christie is now in the hands of a federal jury. The two former aides are accused of conspiring to shut down lanes of the George Washington Bridge to punish a Democratic mayor who had not endorsed Christie, a Republican, in his re-election campaign. Christie said the two were rogue employees.

But defense attorneys argue that Christie knew about it all along and lied when the story became public to protect his hopeful presidential campaign. Andrea Bernstein of member station WNYC was in the courtroom for the summations today. She joins us now. And Andrea, what do the prosecutors say in their closing arguments?

ANDREA BERNSTEIN, BYLINE: So the prosecutors say that three people, the two defendants, Bridget Kelly, Bill Baroni and a third man, David Wildstein, who's pleaded guilty and is cooperating, conspired to misuse government resources by shutting down the lanes of the bridge to punish the mayor of Fort Lee. And exhibit A is Kelly's infamous email - time for some traffic problems in Fort Lee.

Prosecutors also showed other emails and texts between Wildstein and the defendants in which they seemed to ignore the troubles of the mayor and, at times, to mock him. The prosecution says believe those emails. Their language is clear. These were three people who had a lot of power and they misused it to further Chris Christie's political ambitions.

CORNISH: But as we mentioned, it's not Chris Christie that's on trial. So what did the defense have to say?

BERNSTEIN: Right, so that is the essence of the defense, that Chris Christie, who ran for president and is now running Donald Trump's presidential transition, is an immensely powerful man. As Kelly's defense lawyer put it, Christie knew and then when it blew up, Christie lied. And he said that Kelly was the one who was victimized by the more powerful men around her and left, quote, "holding the steaming bag" when the press attention got hot.

The defense also pointed to evidence that Democratic New York Governor Andrew Cuomo, who also runs the Port Authority, which controls the George Washington Bridge, colluded with Christie to keep this quiet so he could extract his own projects from the Port Authority. Both governors have repeatedly denied that.

CORNISH: But if the defendants participated in the scheme, would they be guilty?

BERNSTEIN: The prosecution says yes and that this is not about anyone else and that these people knew about the punitive purpose of the lane reductions. They say even willful blindness is still a crime. And they say that Kelly wasn't a victim but she embraced the punitive culture of the office. But the defendants say they were duped and that Christie and the mastermind and Christie's top aides knew the punitive purpose, not the defendants.

The defense just lit into the star witness, Wildstein, calling him a liar, an intimidator, an enforcer - clean-up man.

CORNISH: Now, where does this all leave Chris Christie?

BERNSTEIN: So Christie hasn't been charged. And while there's a pending citizen-initiated criminal complaint, it's unclear where that goes. But what is clear is he's tarnished. The not-very-subtle subtext of the defense is that all the things that were said about Wildstein, the very same is true of Christie. And there's been testimony that Christie threatened people, cursed at them, punished political opponents, at one point angrily threw a water bottle at Bridget Kelly.

In closing arguments, Kelly's lawyer thundered that Christie is a coward for not coming to testify under oath. Outside the courtroom, Christie has denied but it's clear he knew a lot more about this than he's let on.

CORNISH: Andrea Bernstein, she's a senior editor of politics and policy at member station WNYC. Thank you.

BERNSTEIN: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.