Chris Christie is on a mission against his old friend Trump – starting with the first GOP debate

The former governor believes he is the only Republican who can stand up to Trump and weather the heat, John Bowden writes

Wednesday 23 August 2023 18:59 BST
Chris Christie and Donald Trump
Chris Christie and Donald Trump (EPA/AP/iStock)

Could a man who once helped mould Donald Trump’s rise to power be the one to finally break his hold on the Republican Party?

Chris Christie is betting so.

The former New Jersey governor is running a combative, anti-establishment campaign on behalf of the establishment — the old Republican establishment, the Reagan GOP, against what is now the actual leadership of the Republican Party: Donald Trump, and his inner circle of loyalists, attack dogs and sycophants.

His wager? That he understands the strengths and weaknesses of Mr Trump better than any candidate on the debate stage, an understanding which combined with a punchy, charismatic frontman can spell doom for the Trump campaign. It’s a risky bargain, but surely no riskier than the respective gambits being waged quietly by every single Republican presidential candidate apparently hoping that Mr Trump will drop out under a mountain of legal battles or otherwise spontaneously implode before it is too late.

As it stood ahead of the first Republican debate, Mr Christie is beginning to see at least the whisperings of success. He’s overtaken Ron DeSantis and others in polls of New Hampshire, the first primary state where he hopes to be competitive for the top slot. And, perhaps most importantly, he has been credited at least in the media as being the reason why Donald Trump is skipping the debates entirely.

Adam Kinzinger, a former Republican congressman who served on the House January 6 select committee, has said that Mr Trump is “scared to death” of Mr Christie.

“Because I think Chris Christie is going to wipe the floor with him,” he added.

Mr Kinzinger called Mr Trump a “coward” for not participating in the first GOP debate, adding that the Republican Party has suffered a series of losses because of the former president.

“The Republicans have done nothing but lose since Donald Trump,” he told CNN.

Former New Jersey Governor Chris Christie speaks at the Republican Jewish Coalition Annual Leadership Meeting
Former New Jersey Governor Chris Christie speaks at the Republican Jewish Coalition Annual Leadership Meeting (AFP via Getty Images)

So how did the former New Jersey governor go so quickly from being one of Donald Trump’s biggest cheerleaders and most trusted advisers to a man hell-bent on Mr Trump’s downfall?

One Democratic strategist thinks Mr Trump was the perfect foil for Mr Christie to get back into electoral politics.

“Trump was what he needed, whether he wanted to admit it or not,” Hank Sheinkopf told Politico. “Trump was his way back.”

And Mr Christie appears especially adept at getting under Mr Trump’s skin. The former president has called Mr Christie a “fat pig” and said at a recent campaign event that “Christie’s eating right now”.

Mr Christie fired back at the former president: “If you had the guts you would show up to the debate and say it to my face.”

A governor goes to Washington

The final months of Mr Christie’s time as governor of New Jersey are now largely glossed over, even by the man himself, as much of his focus during that time was evidently on Washington DC and the man who would eventually win the Oval Office. Only the Bridgegate scandal, largely credited with tarnishing Mr Christie’s image on the national stage just ahead of his own presidential run, is given much air in his writings as the governor blasted a former ally as a liar and a felon while shrugging off any personal liability for closing lanes on a heavily trafficked bridge from New Jersey to New York City.

Described in play-by-play fashion with the governor’s own thoughts interspersed throughout his book Let Me Finish, Mr Christie’s time on the 2016 Trump campaign and later Trump transitional team was largely spent butting heads with a series of the president’s closest flunkies: son-in-law Jared Kushner, ex-chief of staff Reince Priebus and Breitbart scion Steve Bannon. The three are constantly portrayed as undermining and weakening the efforts of both Mr Christie and the president himself as Mr Trump limped to the finish line in 2016 and proceeded to staff the White House with loyalists and the occasional expert floated by Mr Christie or others.

Jared Kushner with Donald Trump
Jared Kushner with Donald Trump (Drew Angerer/Getty Images)

Pretty much the entirety of Mr Trump’s presidency is portrayed the same way: One instance after another of the president or others ignoring Mr Christie’s prescient advice, either on the Russia investigation, repeal of Obamacare or a myriad of other issues that consumed the White House and Washington DC for four years. Mr Christie, meanwhile, depicts himself as a loyal operative and ally who sought to fill the White House with a star-studded cast of experts and political heavyweights, almost none of whom ever made it through the front door. In the end, the governor writes that he was denied the job he wanted — RNC chair — after being explicitly promised the position, and angrily turning down a long series of jobs in response.

The second Trump campaign and claims of a stolen election

Mr Christie describes the second Trump bid for the White House in much less flattering language. While he was still a part of that failed campaign, the governor writes in his second book, Republican Rescue, that the Trump re-election bid was characterised by Mr Trump’s own disinterest in running a serious campaign and his lack of professionalism in nearly every regard.

The ex-governor pretty explicitly blames Mr Trump for giving him Covid — an infection that killed another prominent Republican, Herman Cain, and put both Mr Christie and Mr Trump in the hospital. He also describes Mr Trump as blowing him off for repeated debate prep sessions, even after calling Mr Christie to Washington to participate, as the ex-president took a dismissive attitude towards the idea that he needed to mount a real campaign against Mr Biden, whom he mocked as old and senile.

The book, written after the January 6 assault on the Capitol, is Mr Christie employing the same play-by-play style without any of the rose-tinted text of his previous descriptions of working with Mr Trump. And the straightforward, call-it-like-it-is style that the governor displays throughout both Republican Rescue and Let Me Finish is clearly his greatest asset, emblematic of the anti-politician-speak attitude that served Mr Christie so well on the debate stage in 2016.

The January 6 assault capped off a months-long period that Mr Christies has often described as his final break-up with Mr Trump. The effort to overturn the 2020 election, he has written and said countless times, was the “indefensible” moment that ended his ability to defend his longtime friend as a leader.

Former New Jersey Gov Chris Christie speaks at a town-hall-style event at the New Hampshire Institute of Politics at Saint Anselm College
Former New Jersey Gov Chris Christie speaks at a town-hall-style event at the New Hampshire Institute of Politics at Saint Anselm College (Getty Images)

In Republican Rescue, he gives probably the clearest explanation for why Mr Trump should face criminal charges for the January 6 attack, which he dubs a “deadly assault on the seat of our nation’s government”. According to Mr Christie, the “incitement” of the attack was committed by Mr Trump specifically, and done so over a period of months leading up to the attack.

“Trump had caused the insurrection, and not with his speech outside the White House that day,” the ex-governor wrote, using a word that other Republicans have been loathe to accept as a description of that day. “He started causing it weeks before Election Day”.

“To me, the incitement was not one speech. The incitement was also the seventy, eighty, ninety days before that. Claiming that the election was stolen without providing evidence. Promising to provide evidence and never doing so.”

That certainly sounds like a defence of a criminal charge of conspiracy, at the very least.

Can he win?

The question for Mr Christie’s 2024 campaign has never been the same as the one faced by other Republican candidates.

It was never going to be, “will this candidate have the guts to criticise the race’s frontrunner directly?” It was always going to be a mix of, “will he have the opportunity?” and “will it matter?”

As of right now, we don’t know the answer to either question. With Mr Trump currently pledging to skip the debates, Mr Christie’s chance to go head-to-head with Mr Trump in person appears to be fading fast. That leaves fewer meaningful opportunities for the governor to make his argument, and to demonstrate an ability to hold his own against the ex-president directly.

“You can use the debate to get the anti-Trump message out that he’s pushing, but you’re going to lack that viral moment if the two of them aren’t looking at each other face to face,” Republican strategist Ryan Williams told The New York Times of Mr Christie.

It also remains to be seen whether a sizable enough portion of the Republican electorate is willing to look at the criticism of Mr Trump in an objective manner, or whether they see any Republican willing to do so as a traitor, or a Republican in name only. While Mr Christie has made some clear gains so far, he hasn’t yet shown that he will be able to truly break through to the GOP base.

In the end, the calculus around Mr Christie’s campaign will likely depend almost entirely on Mr Trump, and whether he can maintain a presidential campaign under multiple criminal prosecutions. Should the unforeseen cratering of Mr Trump’s White House bid occur, it’s clear that Mr Christie will be in a good position to emerge as one of the top contenders for the nomination.

What’s far less clear is whether his true gambit — his bid to personally provoke that downward spiral by picking a fight in front of the cameras — will be what actually does it.

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