By Alex Altman
January 9, 2014

Being the boss is chris Christie’s brand. In a slick-talking business, New Jersey’s Republican governor has made bombast his signature and has turned a temper into an asset. He berates hecklers, shouts at the press and has confronted a detractor on a boardwalk, ice cream cone in hand. He has a job to do, decorum be damned.

But there is a delicate line between rhetorical bluster and official bullying, and his staff appears to have crossed it. Emails and text messages released on Jan. 8 as part of an investigation into lane closures on the George Washington Bridge in September suggest that a top Christie aide deliberately snarled traffic on the nation’s busiest span to inflict retribution on a political opponent. The documents turned a local kerfuffle into a national controversy that could affect the 2016 Republican presidential race, in which Christie is an early front runner.

The exchanges do not directly implicate Christie, who has denied advance knowledge of the closures. But they contradict his claims that his senior staff was not involved. Instead, they appear to reveal a top Christie official and one of his political appointees plotting weeks in advance to create gridlock around Fort Lee, N.J., using a traffic study as a pretext to punish a Democratic mayor who declined to endorse the governor’s re-election campaign. “Time for some traffic problems in Fort Lee,” wrote Bridget Anne Kelly, a Christie deputy chief of staff, in an Aug. 13 email to David Wildstein, a regional traffic official and Christie ally. “Got it,” he responded. Weeks later, after the mayor noted that clogged roads were delaying school buses, an unidentified official snarked, “They are the children of [Barbara] Buono voters,” a reference to the Democratic candidate Christie defeated in November.

Wildstein and a second Christie transportation appointee resigned in December as New Jersey Democrats launched an investigation into the closures. After the documents were released, Christie vowed to punish offending aides for “this completely inappropriate and unsanctioned conduct,” which augurs a fresh round of firings as the governor scrambles to distance himself from the scandal. The episode may feed the perception that a man given to volcanic public outbursts may also use his office to bully opponents in private. For Christie, that kind of damage may take longer to repair.

This appears in the January 20, 2014 issue of TIME.

Write to Alex Altman at alex_altman@timemagazine.com.

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