Chris Christie, once one of the Republican Party’s brightest stars, was virtually assured a position in a Donald Trump administration. As one of the first big-name politicians to endorse the Manhattan billionaire, the New Jersey governor had earned Trump’s gratitude.
Or so it seemed.
Instead, just a few months after being denied the VP slot, Christie suffered another public humiliation – he was stripped of his leadership of Trump’s presidential transition. In a phone call last week, the president-elect told Christie that he had become a political liability.
Trump and his top aides were most concerned about two issues, according to nearly a dozen people briefed on the process: Christie’s mismanagement of the transition, and the lingering political fallout of the Bridgegate scandal.
In their phone call, which was relayed by three sources, Trump expressed his worry about the recent conviction of two of the governor’s former top aides, who had accused him of knowing more about the shutdown of the George Washington Bridge than he let on. Was more damaging information to come, Trump wondered?
After that discussion, the axe fell swiftly on Christie and his inner circle.
On Friday, Nov. 11, the transition team announced that Vice President-elect Mike Pence would be taking over Christie’s duties. A purge of Christie loyalists soon followed, along with a promise to cleanse the transition of lobbyists the governor had brought in to steer the new administration.
The switchover came with little warning. Richard Bagger, a former chief of staff to the New Jersey governor who had been the transition team’s executive director, found himself without access to the Trump offices where he’d been working, according to two sources familiar with the matter. Rick Dearborn, a top aide to Sen. Jeff Sessions, was brought in to replace him.
Spokespersons for Trump and Christie declined to comment. Bagger didn’t respond to a request for comment.
In the days following the election, Trump expressed deep frustration about how Christie was handling the transition. In particular, he vented about how the governor had loaded up the team with lobbyists, the very class of people Trump had campaigned against, with his calls to “drain the swamp” in Washington. The president-elect also noticed that Christie had stocked his team with old New Jersey friends and allies.
There were other issues. Once the dust settled from their surprise win, the Trump team noticed that Christie had done little to vet potential administration picks or to dig into potential conflicts of interests. With Democrats eager to pounce on any early mistake, it was an oversight they simply couldn’t afford.
By Thursday of last week, Trump was telling aides that he was ready to make a change.
To some degree, Christie’s problems weren’t entirely of his making. In Trump, he was dealing with a political newcomer who didn’t understand the importance of laying the groundwork for a future administration. After being tapped to head the transition this summer, the governor met with Trump. Why, the candidate wanted to know, did he have to spend time and resources on a transition when he hadn’t yet won the election?
But Christie fumbled, failing to understand the family-driven dynamic of the Trump presidential bid. Early on, Paul Manafort, Trump’s then-campaign chairman, urged the governor to get Trump’s children and his influential son-in-law, Jared Kushner, invested in the hires he was making. It was advice Christie didn’t seem to take.
In the months to come, Kushner, a 35-year-old New York City real estate mogul who grew up in New Jersey, would become a bigger problem for Christie, arguing forcefully against Trump making the governor his running mate. Christie, a former U.S. attorney, became convinced that Kushner was retaliating over his 2004 prosecution of Kushner’s father, Charles.
Still, while they never became close, Kushner and Christie agreed to work together. At several points, according to two sources, Trump took steps to forge a warmer relationship between them — apparently without success.
Kushner’s allies say the idea that he’s out for personal vengeance, promoted in several recent stories, is simplistic and overblown. Rather, they argue, the Trump son-in-law has more substantive concerns — viewing the governor as badly damaged following the Bridgegate affair. And in the days following the election, Kushner told others in Trump Tower that Christie oversaw a messy, lobbyist-filled transition operation that simply needed to be cleaned up.
Over the last week, a number of Christie hires have been replaced. In an indication of just how intense the backlash to Christie has been within the campaign, some New Jersey Republicans have been dissuaded from applying for administration jobs out of fear that they’ll be seen as close to the governor.
Within Christie’s world, the question has turned to what’s next for the embattled governor – and whether he’ll get anything at all from Trump. At this week’s Republican Governors Association meeting in Orlando, Fla., a number of the party’s governors and top donors, in private huddles, wondered aloud about Christie’s future. Christie attended the conference for part of the week, along with Pence, his transition successor, who briefed fellow governors on the incoming administration’s plans in a private session.
In recent days, Christie’s advisers have reached out to him to see how he’s holding up. He’s fine, he’s told them. It was only a matter of time that the transition process would be taken from him once the election was over.
“I know all of them have taken inordinate concern, just in the last 10 days or so, about my future. All of them have become, you know, employment counselors,” he added. “I have every intention of serving out my full term as governor — I’ve said that from the beginning.”
It’s not out of the question that the governor, who remains in touch with Trump, will eventually win a post. Yet some senior Trump aides, including Kushner, have begun to question whether, following the Bridgegate trial, the governor is so radioactive that it will be possible for him to win Senate confirmation to a Cabinet post.
Christie’s advisers, meanwhile, speculate that the governor might exit politics entirely when his term expires in January 2018. Some of them suggest that Christie, an avid sports fan, could take a job as a sports radio host. He is an occasional guest caller to WFAN, the popular New York City-based sports talk station.
To some, it’s far too early to write him off.
“He’s the most interesting politician I’ve seen since Bill Clinton,” said former New Jersey Gov. Tom Kean, a Christie mentor. “He’s got an enormous set of skills.”
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