Explosive emails released Wednesday are casting a potential cloud over New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie’s presidential prospects for 2016.
The revealing conversations between state officials suggest for the first time that politics -- from the highest levels of Christie's administration -- may have played a role in last fall's controversial closure of local access lanes to the congested George Washington Bridge in Fort Lee, N.J. in the midst of Christie’s re-election campaign.
In a statement, Christie called the actions of a top aide ordering the closure of lanes on a major thoroughfare "unacceptable," and vowed to hold members of his administration accountable.
Democrats have charged the closures were an attempt at political retribution for Ft. Lee Mayor Mark Sokolich, a Democrat who declined to endorse Christie's re-election effort last year and whose city sits in the shadow of the bridge.
But the emails threaten to undercut the governor's strong denial that politics played any role in the closure.
"Time for some traffic problems in Fort Lee," Christie Deputy Chief of Staff Bridget Anne Kelly wrote to Christie Port Authority aide David Wildstein on Aug. 13, weeks before the lane closures that snarled traffic on the first day of school in New Jersey last fall.
Wildstein replied, "Got it."
In one of the more revealing exchanges, an unidentified person sent this text message about delayed school buses to Wildstein on Sept. 10, the second day of the lane closures:
"Is it wrong that I am smiling?"
Person: "I feel badly about the kids. I guess."
Wildstein: "They are the children of Buono voters."
Buono is the Democrat whom Christie defeated in last year's gubernatorial race.
"Everyone who had knowledge of the closing should be terminated immediately and the Department of Justice should conduct a thorough investigation to determine whether other towns in New Jersey suffered because the Governor wanted to get revenge," Buono said in a statement Wednesday afternoon.
Christie has denied involvement with the lane closures, and "absolutely, unequivocally" denied that the closures were politically motivated after accepting the resignation of a top port authority official in December.
Ahead of his reelection last fall, Christie was seeking endorsements from North Jersey Democrats to promote his ability to forge bipartisanship. Christie and his team did attract several endorsements from North Jersey Democrats, but there were some holdouts, including the Mayor of Fort Lee, just across the Hudson River from Manhattan.
One day last September, two bridge access lanes to the George Washington Bridge from Fort Lee were cut off – a bridge that is the busiest in the world, according to the Port Authority.
New Jersey Port Authority officials said it was for a traffic study. But the mayor of Fort Lee charged that it was political retribution for not endorsing Christie, something thought to be a far-flung charge. That is until a hearing looking into the matter in December seemed to give some credence to that theory.
A New York Port Authority official testified that he was unaware of any such study. Two Christie appointees wound up resigning.
Now these emails, released to state investigators by subpoena, reveal the greater depth to which Christie aides sought payback against Fort Lee Mayor Mark Sokolich, derided by one Christie aide in the released emails as a “little Serbian” and threatening that “it will be a tough November” for him.
NBC New York and other news outlets report that Wildstein supplied the exchanges in response to a subpoena by state lawmakers investigating the lane closures. Wildstein, the former port authority's director of interstate capital projects, resigned in December shortly before Bill Baroni, the deputy executive director of the New York-New Jersey Port Authority, also resigned.
Here's the link to the emails and text messages.
NBC News has reached out to Christie's office for comment, but has yet to hear back.