Regrets? Chris Christie Has a Few. (Politico)

Regrets? Chris Christie Has a Few.

http://politi.co/2zL5jNN

TRENTON—Chris Christie had some thoughts on how I should write this article.

“You should break out of leading with ‘the most unpopular governor in galactic history’ and all this other shit that everybody hits F2, F3, F4 [on and] bang, bang, bang, the paragraphs flip in,” the outgoing New Jersey governor said on a recent afternoon, tapping his conference room table like a keyboard. “You should do something different.”

Christie had spent almost three hours reminiscing on his meteoric political rise, the bridge saga, his failed 2016 campaign and his controversial Donald Trump endorsement, his subsequent White House adventures and some of his more infamous misadventures, like sitting on a beach he had ordered closed and being caught by a photographer’s long-lens camera.

So, with 68 days left in his governorship and the interview winding down, he urged me to forget all that and focus on the good things he had done for his state—and perhaps memorialize him as the pragmatic Republican governor who had cleaned up New Jersey and won a second term in hostile territory. He essentially wanted the story to ignore much of what happened afterward.

And yet, any fair assessment of Christie’s legacy has to reckon with the highs and the lows. For four years, from 2009 until 2013, he was a political rock star. Iowa activists wooed him to run for president in 2012, even flying to New Jersey to make their case. Magazine covers hailed his brilliance. (“THE BOSS,” blared one TIME cover he loves read.) He screamed at people on the boardwalk while carrying an ice cream cone. It didn’t matter. His approval rating soared above 75 percent in a reliably blue state. After two stinging defeats to Barack Obama, some in the GOP saw a potential winner in Christie’s combination of raw talent, fundraising prowess and ability to woo minorities and Democrats. Many on his team thought him a shoo-in GOP nominee. But he passed up a run in 2012, figuring he wasn’t ready.

Then, for the next four years, Christie became something of a national punching bag. Everything people loved about him seemed to become what they hated. The bridge lanes closed. Investigations mushroomed around his office. Allies and aides were convicted in the closings. His presidential ambitions cratered. Christie, who prides himself a prodigious fundraiser, couldn’t attract donors to his campaign. He was beaten by Trump, a political novice, and then mocked for fetching Trump McDonald’s—even though he didn’t do that—and for looking like a hostage during his endorsement of Trump, even though he says he wasn’t. His musical hero, New Jersey’s own Bruce Springsteen, even sang a duet mocking him with Jimmy Fallon, his favorite late-show host.

“They shut down the toll booths of glory because we didn’t endorse Christie,” the two men sang to the tune of “Born to Run.” “We’re stuck in Gov. Chris Christie’s Fort Lee, New Jersey traffic jam.”

In the longest interview Christie has given in years, as he dropped oyster crackers into a large vat of chili, he said the story of his rise and fall had not been told accurately. He was never as good as depicted—nor as bad.

“I never felt 78, and I don’t feel the 22,” he said of his approval ratings. “What I hope at the end of the day is that this really is about my eight years, and the bridge stuff is part of that, and the Trump stuff is part of that, but it’s only a part.”

***


The apex for Christie was Nov. 5, 2013.

Voters would head to the polls the following day and grant him a resounding re-election victory—61 percent of the vote, including 50 percent among Hispanics, rare for a Republican. His campaign was exultant: They had hoped for 60 percent to show Republicans he was the 2016 force to be reckoned with.

The moment seared into Christie’s mind is the night before Election Day. His campaign organized a raucous rally in the Democratic, Hispanic stronghold of Union City. Streets were closed for the occasion. He was greeted by thousands of Hispanic voters blowing vuvuzelas and carrying union signs and pictures of Christie on sticks when he rolled up to City Hall, on a bannered campaign bus with New Mexico Gov. Susana Martinez. She spoke in Spanish; he spoke Christie, his uniquely pugnacious argot of New Jersey mannerisms and brash self-confidence.

Brian Stack, the Democrat mayor, gave a rousing endorsement that broke against the New Jersey Democratic political machine. Christie’s operation had wooed Democratic mayors for months. “I want to send a shock wave through the state,” Christie said onstage.

“No one can ever take that away from me, and whatever is happening now doesn’t make that any less real,” he told me in our interview, calling the rally a defining moment of his political life.

“What I really thought was, like, Let the good times roll.’ It wasn’t even that good things were coming. They were all happening, and I didn’t expect them to stop. But you never do,” Christie said.

Christie had ruled Trenton with an iron fist and a gaze toward the national stage. Republicans had bent to his will, voting for whatever he wanted, whenever he demanded. There were no juicy stories of palace intrigue, even among his advisers, who sometimes privately disagreed. Most of his team came from the U.S. attorney’s office, and they were fiercely loyal to their longtime patron.

Christie has often been a volcanic boss, sometimes screaming and cursing at aides in humiliating episodes they vividly remember years later. But those didn’t make the public eye.

“That first term, he ran a hermetically sealed operation,” said Charles Stile, the state’s preeminent political columnist for the Bergen Record. “There were no leaks. I’ve never seen an administration operate with that much discipline.”

Christie’s political specialty was the town hall—where he delivered virtuoso, and sometimes emotional, appearances that fueled his reputation as a bold truth-teller. His office turned the format into a polished performance worthy of a touring Broadway show. He gave the same script every time. The same aide introduced him. He tossed the jacket the same way to the same aide. The crowd was often stacked. “If you’re going to give it, you’re going to get it back,” he warned would-be hecklers at every event. They were all filmed. But for all that, they never felt inauthentic: Christie would leave voters in tears with stories about his tough-knuckled mother on her deathbed, his friend who died of overdoses, his emotions after Sandy.

On policy, Christie was both hard-nosed and pragmatic. He capped property taxes in a notoriously high-tax state. He cleaned up a budget mess left by his disgraced predecessor, Gov. Jon Corzine. He persuaded Stephen Sweeney, a burly ironworker’s union official who leads the State Senate, to make a compromise on pensions that would require unions to pay more.

“He came to my union office and we sat down the second day,” Sweeney recalled. “And his comment to me, are we going to get anything done, or do what is always done and fight? He wanted to get things done, and so did I.”

At the time, New Jersey’s pension system was among the most underfunded in the country, and Christie’s predecessors didn’t pay. (Christie also has a checkered record—while paying more than his predecessors, he also skipped some payments.) Stile, a sometimes fierce critic of the governor, said, “The time of practically skipping and significantly shorting the pension system has pretty much stopped. It went on for 15 years leading up to him. He deserves credit for that.”

Christie also made dramatic gestures signaling he was a different kind of Republican—as when he appointed a Muslim judge, Sohail Mohammed, to the bench and loudly defended him against sharp attacks on his religion. Liberals applauded.

He won praise for restructuring the state’s medical colleges. He showed particular interest in the impoverished city of Camden, forging an alliance with Democratic Mayor Dana Redd and pushing new charter schools far and wide.

Perhaps more than anything, there was Superstorm Sandy. When the storm walloped New Jersey and left billions in damage, it may have been Christie’s shining moment back home. He was everywhere, all the time, for months, surveying devastated towns, destroyed wastewater systems, broken bridges, flooded streets and funerals. He greeted President Obama as a hero in a famous embrace, even though for years, his aides ferociously denied it was an actual hug.

Aides say the storm’s aftermath was when Christie was the sharpest, the most unhealthy and the most stressed out. He would convene daily meetings and schedule calls after midnight. Trekking across the state, he became seen as a New Jersey everyman, profane and gruff, devastated and jubilant, in the muck and on the television.

It felt like however people must have felt about Bill Clinton in Arkansas in 1991. Everyone felt it. This is about to happen.”

“His immediate goal was to get the state to some semblance of normal as quickly as he could,” recalled Marc Ferzan, the New Jersey storm czar and a Christie friend. “He was as hardworking as anyone who worked on Sandy, and he had great instincts.”

It all coagulated in Union City. Two days after the election, Christie sent Matt Mowers, a longtime aide, to New Hampshire to lead the party—and begin plotting his 2016 run. Others, like bridge mastermind David Wildstein, said they were going to Iowa. His team was counting the days.

“You could not have told anybody who was a Christie supporter that he wouldn’t be the Republican nominee,” said Rich Constable, a longtime senior aide in the governor’s office. “This is a remarkable talent who is wicked smart. It felt like however people must have felt about Bill Clinton in Arkansas in 1991. Everyone felt it. This is about to happen.”

Christie sometimes calls his world “Rancho Christie,” and life was good on the ranch.

***

Fast forward two months, and Christie hit bottom.

Explosive emails brought a full-bore scandal to his doorstep—the closure of the world’s busiest commuter bridge, allegedly to punish a Democratic mayor who wouldn’t endorse him as governor, into full view. The Wall Street Journal and the Bergen Record had trickled out damaging stories for months, but the emails from David Wildstein changed it all when they were released in early January.

“Time for some traffic problems in Fort Lee,” Bridget Kelly, a senior Christie official, wrote. “Got it,” Wildstein returned. The emails also implicated Bill Baroni, a top Port Authority official.

Christie had been scheduled to attend a Sandy event with Constable that morning. Constable said he remembers turning his car around on the highway when the event was canceled.

He talked to a round-robin of aides: longtime spokeswoman Maria Comella, who broke the news to the governor just after his morning workout, and political adviser Mike DuHaime, who paced the parking lot of the Tick Tock Diner in Clifton as the governor surveyed the damage and vented.

Christie convened senior staff at the governor’s mansion around an upstairs table, where they’d met dozens of times before. They read the stories breaking online and the emails and watched the wall-to-wall TV coverage. Christie went through long periods of silence.

Who knew what, Christie asked? Could he survive? What should he say to the public? Whom should he fire? Was it going to get even worse? “It was all about sheer survival,” one person present said.

There were arguments: Should they fire Bill Stepien, the governor’s top political aide, or David Samson, the Christie-appointed head of the Port Authority, who later pleaded guilty on a separate felony charge? Was Michael Drewniak, the governor’s press secretary mentioned in the emails, a liability?

Stepien, who is now the White House political director, was axed, and DuHaime was given the duty to tell him, even though he disagreed with the decision. Samson survived. Drewniak met with the governor’s senior staff for two hours and managed to save his job.

No one ate much of anything, several aides remember. Christie made none of the firing calls himself. Nor did he yell or shout, people present say. He was ashen and looked ghostly and appeared on the verge of tears for much of the day. His brother Todd Christie, a Wall Street type and informal adviser, stopped by. Samson popped in. So did Bill Palatucci, a longtime confidant.

Eventually, he slept—badly—and decided to have a marathon news conference denying any involvement in the lane closures. Then he went underground for months. It didn’t get better.

Everything Christie had done in his first term—the hard-nosed tactics, the micromanaging at the Port Authority, calling mayors to cancel meetings when he was mad, his outbursts and the blurry line between his political and policy operations—was under fresh scrutiny. He had won a huge electoral victory, but Democrats still controlled the legislature and most major cities—and they saw blood in the water.

Soon others were launching fresh charges against his administration, like the mayor of Hoboken, who accused him of holding Sandy money hostage. The U.S. attorney’s office eventually said her claims were without merit. “Frankly, she should have been charged for providing false information,” Christie told me.

In following months, friends say, he was sullen and quiet on the phone, rare for the voluble Christie. He stayed largely out of public view. During one event at Times Square promoting the Meadowlands Super Bowl, he was booed loudly. Christie hopped into the car devastated and rode back to New Jersey silent.

For a while, allies and aides say, Christie feared he was going to be charged himself over what became known as Bridgegate, though he always denied involvement. He demurred when I asked him about it repeatedly. “I always tried to have confidence in the process and in the system,” he said.

Inside the governor’s orbit, people still debate his exact role—what he knew, and when. Several aides told me they believed he knew more about the closures than he ever let on, even if he didn’t plan them. Why did he delete the texts he had exchanged with a senior aide, Regina Egea, during a particularly bad day of testimony? For months, he’d known that something seemed kinky at the bridge and had talked to aides about it. There was a photo of Wildstein and Baroni at the Sept. 11 ceremony that year—which happened while the closings were underway—when the men said they told the governor. Wildstein said he laughed about it.

Christie told me the speculation was hogwash. He says he doesn’t even remember the texts with Egea. He said he only learned about the nature of the closing from the emails. And as for Wildstein, he says they didn’t tell him that day.

I don’t even think the true story has ever been told about why it was done,” said Christie.

Christie said that if he were going to exchange sensitive conversations with Egea, why would he text her when she worked two offices over? He referenced a famous—and now mocked—answer, where he told a reporter he was “moving the cones” one month before the emails came out, when asked about the lane closures.

“But would I have ever gotten up and said, “Oh, yeah. I was in disguise that morning in overalls and a hat and I was the one moving the cones.” Now, if I had known that something was actually going on, do you think I would have actually done that?” he said.

The investigation lasted more than a year. Wildstein pleaded guilty and cooperated. The trial of Kelly and Baroni drove Christie crazy. He would sometimes call aides and friends several times a day to vent and swear. On several occasions, he thought about firing back and ordering up statements.

“I was on trial,” he explained to me. “I wasn’t allowed to be there, I wasn’t allowed to respond, but the case was tried against me, not against the people who actually were sitting with the courtroom—with absolutely no evidence I had any involvement.”

Christie said neither side had called him to the courtroom because “the government told David Wildstein’s version of the truth. The defense told Bridget Kelly and Bill Baroni’s versions of the truth.”

“I don’t even think the true story has ever been told about why it was done,” he said. “I don’t buy the fact and I’ve never bought the fact that this was done to penalize the mayor of Fort Lee.”

He declined to say why he thought it was done, saying he didn’t know.

Wildstein, who is now taking playwriting courses in Florida as the appeals process continues, declined to comment on the record about the bridge. He is expected to become more involved in politics in upcoming months.

But he did take a parting shot at Christie: “Among my regrets is I got snookered by this guy.”

***

Nothing makes Christie aides cringe more than one quote he gave on the governorship: that he wanted to “squeeze all the juice out of the orange” for himself and his family.

“Chris Christie was always prone to self-inflicted wounds. Some of the optics we had to deal with were so disappointing because they were avoidable,” said Michael Drewniak, his longtime spokesman.

There was, of course, this summer’s embarrassment of being photographed sitting on a closed beach, lounging in a beach chair as New Jersey residents stewed at home.

Before that, there was the time Christie flew to the desert and stayed at a posh resort with the king of Jordan, taking a $30,000 gift and explaining the Hashemite monarch was a “personal friend.” The time he took a state helicopter to his son’s baseball game so he could also meet with donors urging him to run for president. That time he went to Disney World during a snowstorm, even with his lieutenant governor out of state. The times he screamed at New Jersey residents and officials—calling for a grandmother legislator to be hit with a bat, chasing a man while carrying an ice cream cone, calling a Navy Seal a jerk. The time as U.S. attorney that he stayed in such luxurious hotel rooms and took such expensive limos that the federal government came out with new guidelines for all U.S. attorneys.

Christie loved showing off pictures with celebrities and taking lavish vacations. He loved being on the sideline, in the owner’s box, wherever he could go that was closest to the nexus of it all. He was starstruck with his fame, several longtime aides said.

His penchant for getting what he wanted at all times was so ingrained that it once even led to a showdown between Buckingham Palace and Wildstein—which Wildstein won. When Queen Elizabeth II was coming to ground zero, her office blanched at a request to add the governor’s children to a list of people meeting the queen. Wildstein told the palace the visit could not happen. Eventually, a compromise was worked out, and the queen met the Christie kids.

For these more sympathetic former Christie aides, they find his behavior puzzling: How could such a talented politician, with such an innate understanding of politics and perception, make such boneheaded decisions? Even to some of his staunchest defenders, the episodes fueled an image of a out-of-control, out-for-myself executive who could not give a damn about the public.

Here’s what Christie has to say about that: “I understand that people obsess on optics. I’ve never been a guy who obsesses on optics.”

Christie has rarely apologized, and told me that most of his outbursts at New Jersey residents were strategic. He seemed to grow happy talking about a recent encounter in which he got into a heated argument with a voter at the polling station near his house. Nor does he regret chasing the man on the boardwalk while carrying an ice cream cone, saying the man had used the F-word in front of his children.

Asked whether such episodes are emotional, uncontrolled outbursts, Christie responded: “A lot of the dummies in your business think it is.” His own associates don’t see it that way; Drewniak said that many of the outbursts were “spontaneous” episodes that led to weeks of headaches rather than calculated strategy. Others said he couldn’t control his temper.

The one outburst he regrets, Christie said, was calling a Navy Seal who challenged him at a town hall a “jerk”—but even then, he insisted he was fundamentally in the right: “I think he merited the comment, but I shouldn’t have said it.”

At one point in our conversation, he ticked through each well-known incident and explained himself, growing animated and at times profane.

“I assume that the king of Jordan doesn’t put people up at the Motel 6. He’s the king of Jordan,” Christie said. In a mocking tone, he added: “Your Majesty, is there a Motel 6 in the area so I won’t offend anybody?”

I assume that the king of Jordan doesn’t put people up at the Motel 6. He’s the king of Jordan,” said Christie.

Most New Jerseyans are either Eagles or Giants fans, and Christie drew particular derision for flying on a private plane owned by Dallas Cowboys owner Jerry Jones to several games and taking luxury box seats. Some critics raised concerns that Jones had business in front of the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, which Christie partially controlled. After weeks of headaches, Christie begrudgingly agreed to fly commercial to a Cowboys playoff game. Aides said he still wanted to take the free plane.

“I became governor and got to know Jerry. He invited me to the games, and where am I supposed to sit when he invites me to the games? He’s going to sit me with them,” he said.

The beach incident annoys Christie maybe the most. He was sunning in a chair with his family, in the middle of a budget standoff this July 4 weekend. He had ordered the beaches closed because there was no state budget. The Star-Ledger sent a photographer down the shoreline in a private plane and snapped pictures that went viral on the internet. Children made Halloween costumes of Christie on the beach.

“Could you imagine that I could see the long lens?” Christie said, asked if he knew the plane was carrying a photographer to snap pictures of him. “Of course not.”

Even so, Christie insisted he didn’t regret the shoreline excursion. He had worked the rest of the day, and had promised his children and their friends a vacation for months on July 4 weekend.

Nothing made his longtime circle angrier than the beach.

“There have been so many times I wanted to pummel him,” one longtime aide said. “I would have pummeled him in the face that day.” Another called his decisions “completely and totally fucking inexplicable.”

“Those things became distractions,” said Mike DuHaime, his top political adviser. “They were bigger distractions than anyone anticipated.”

“He overreached often,” Drewniak said. “He would get his blinders on and just be incredibly stubborn.” He added: “I don’t regret working for him. He was the best boss I ever had. It was all part of the package.”

***

In the words of Christie’s favorite singer, Bruce Springsteen, his political fortunes were stuck somewhere in the swamps of Jersey by 2014.

He was diminished by Bridgegate but still thought he had a chance in 2016. Many of his aides were skeptical but went along with the plan: He would chart his course as chairman of the Republican Governors Association, travel the country, raise money, build alliances and try to put together a presidential campaign infrastructure. He raised record amounts of cash for the RGA and helped win more than 30 gubernatorial races. He could still make national headlines anytime he wanted.

Christie entered the presidential race in June 2015 at his New Jersey high school. “I saw a path, but we were under no illusions about how difficult it was going to be,” DuHaime said. “And none of us saw the Trump phenomenon coming.”

Christie and his team knew he had little chance in Iowa and South Carolina, so they cast their lot in New Hampshire, where, it was thought, his ideological pragmatism and skill at retail politics would be huge assets. Drawing on the playbook that had worked so well back home, Christie crisscrossed the state in a bus and held more than 100 town halls. He was able to secure more endorsements than any other candidate. There were a number of times it looked like he had momentum: He won the coveted Union-Leader endorsement. A clip of him talking about opioid addiction went viral. His prosecutor bona fides became useful amid terrorist attacks, and he slashed Marco Rubio at the final debate before the vote.

“I’ve always been good at it and I’ll always be good at it,” Christie said of his stage performances.

By Christmas, Christie’s hustle seemed to have paid off: He found himself in second place, where he thought he would ultimately finish. But that turned out to be the high-water mark of his campaign. He soon was inundated with money from super PACS linked to Rubio and Jeb Bush, and Trump dropped his friendly stance and ripped him over the bridge.

“The GW Bridge, he knew about it,” Trump said. “How do you have breakfast with people everyday of your lives. … They’re closing up the largest bridge in the world. They never said ‘Hey boss, we’re closing up the George Washington Bridge.’ So they’re talking about the weather? He knew about it. He totally knew about it.”

Instead of firing back at Trump, who he figured couldn’t be beaten in New Hampshire, Christie lashed out at Rubio, who was competing for the same pool of educated, moderate voters. Other candidates and their teams said Christie, who prided himself on taking on difficult challenges, shirked the ultimate political one.

“You saw so many other candidates try and fail at that tactic and strategy,” Matt Mowers, Christie’s New Hampshire director, said of attacking Trump. “You would see those candidates lose support in the polls. It never seemed strategically advantageous.”

Mowers said it was almost impossible to gain traction in the state with such a crowded field and Trump’s uncanny ability to earn media attention and blot out the sun. Voters would love Christie and say he was on “their list,” Mowers said, but they would eventually go with Trump, who was even more “tell-it-like-it-is.”

DuHaime said the calculation was to only swing at Trump hard if it was a one-on-one field, and that the governor knew Trump was going to win. His attack on Rubio didn’t work; the Florida senator’s voters defected, but to other candidates.

Christie’s strategy was falling apart. He couldn’t raise enough money, a particularly painful shortcoming for a once-prolific fundraiser. After the onslaught of ads attacking him, he continued to fall in the campaign’s daily tracking polls—and he didn’t have the resources to hit back.

The governors he’d raised money for as RGA chair didn’t support him in return, infuriating his team. DuHaime called it “cowardly.”

“I think it was an enormous leadership opportunity lost for the Republican governors,” Christie said. “They just sat on the sidelines for reasons that I’ll never completely understand because there were a lot of good candidates to pick from.”

And back in New Jersey, Christie was haunted by home-state problems: sagging poll ratings, a crumbling NJ Transit system, credit downgrades, a steady stream of headlines from the ongoing Bridgegate trial, a separate investigation into Samson, the wobbly financial fortunes of Atlantic City. Even his widely praised response to Superstorm Sandy had became a negative.

“That hug was never forgiven by so many people in the Republican establishment,” said DuHaime, who thinks Christie’s embrace of Obama hurt him with hyperpartisan GOP primary voters even more than Bridgegate.

Christie sat stoically as the returns came in, him finishing sixth. He stared at his father. His children cried. He knew he was going to drop out but decided to wait a day after talking to Larry Hogan of Maryland, a friend and one of the few fellow governors who had campaigned with him.

He returned to New Jersey and posted a statement on Facebook, dropping out on Feb. 10.

***

Before Christie flew to Dallas to endorse Donald Trump two weeks later, he didn’t tell some of his most senior aides. They learned about it from his secretary while he was in the air.

Christie had assured aides after New Hampshire that he didn’t plan to endorse in the race, and they looked forward to trying to salvage his legacy in New Jersey.

After he learned the news, Kevin Roberts, then communications director, called his team into an emergency meeting and told them. He was met with silence.

“We’re fucked,” Roberts said, according to attendees. The decision was widely loathed in his circle. DuHaime, his top political adviser, declined to follow his lead. Maria Comella, his top aide for years, later came out with a statement endorsing Hillary Clinton.

By this time, Christie had already grown so unpopular that the governor found a novel way to punish one of his adversaries after one of their volcanic fights. He called into a radio show and praised Sweeney, the state Senate leader and a Democrat, describing him as a great governing partner. “He was praising me to hurt me, and I knew exactly what he was doing, and he did too,” Sweeney said.

Christie explains his endorsement of Trump as a pragmatic move. “I was the first,” he reminded me. “And I turned out to be right.”

The endorsement gave him a chance to be in the game—and Christie couldn’t stand the idea of being a lame-duck governor on the sidelines. Now he talks to Trump several times a week. He loved playing Hillary Clinton in debate prep. When Trump won, he was onstage. At the same time, several aides said, it was essentially a white surrender flag on his governorship.

“One, I wanted to make him a better candidate—and two, I wanted him to beat Hillary Clinton because I didn’t want Hillary Clinton to be president and I thought he was the guy who was going to give us the chance to do that,” Christie told me.

But, he hastened to add, “It doesn’t mean that I agree with everything Donald Trump does. I don’t. But I agree on a hell of a lot more with him than I do with Hillary Clinton, right?”

Former aides say Christie made the decision after Trump courted him extensively, asking him frequently to endorse. Christie was angry with the other candidates and frustrated with the whole ordeal of running. “Trump worked him harder than anyone else in trying to get it. He called him repeatedly,” DuHaime said.

DuHaime said Christie called him the night Trump won South Carolina. The two men agreed the billionaire developer would be the nominee—so Christie decided to endorse.

“The right thing for him to do was to endorse Trump at the time. That is not what I wanted to do for myself, so I didn’t go work for him,” DuHaime said.

Some aides and allies say he endorsed early in hopes of getting a plum job if Trump won. Christie denied that.

“I know that whatever a candidate may say to you before they’re elected means little once they’re elected. Because everything changes. A whole bunch of different people get in their ear and everything else. So, no. I wouldn’t make that calculation because I know from my own experience that candidates will say anything, and you can’t count on that beforehand,” he said.

During a news conference soon after the endorsement, Christie stared blankly behind Trump, his eyes blinking. Twitter wags instantly pronounced that he looked like a hostage. The clips went viral on the internet and infuriated Christie.

“My job was to introduce him, and the original plan was to introduce him and go offstage,” Christie said. “I introduce him, he comes up the stage, he goes, ‘Stay here with me.’ ‘OK.’ So I stood back there. I was like, ‘All right.’”

“I’d love for somebody to actually do that and stand behind someone at a press conference and have any other look on your face,” he said. Had he laughed or smiled, Christie said, he would have been called a “goofball.”

Christie agreed to helm the transition, but he craved a certain spot in the administration: attorney general. And he didn’t get it. Instead, he suffered a series of fresh humiliations.

There was the time Trump told a large crowd in Christie’s home state that the governor would no longer eat Oreos. There was the time The New Yorker reported an aide saying that Trump had made Christie fetch him McDonald’s, a nugget that instantly went viral. (Sam Nunberg, a former Trump aide, told me he made up the story to embarrass Christie—and that it spread like wildfire. “The sad reality is that it was believable,” Nunberg said, chuckling.)

There was the time, at a rally in February 2016, that Trump told him to get on the plane and “go home” before Trump spoke, seeming to mock his own campaign surrogate.

Christie sees the Tennessee tarmac incident differently. “People were acting like it was a fucking punishment. The guy gave me his smaller plane and said, ‘Leave early so you don’t have to wait for me, because you’ve been so great to me the last two days doing this for two days.’ And then asshole reporters write that he was like, ‘Get Chris off the stage,’” the governor said. “That’s the stuff that drives you crazy.”

I would never underestimate Jared’s ability to be involved in whatever he wants to do be involved in,” Christie said.

Christie said even he was taken aback by Trump’s nice gesture to send a second plane after two days on the trail. “Just when you think you’ve got him figured out, like in a bad way, he does something really generous and over-the-top that makes you go like, ‘He is a good guy in his heart,’” he said.

Christie’s generous interpretation of Trump’s treatment of him even extends to his own ouster. Two days after Trump’s surprise win, Steve Bannon and Christie were seen arguing for several hours in a glass office in the transition headquarters in New York. Bannon was firing him as chair of the transition, and Christie wasn’t taking the news well. He wanted to know who was behind it, and he suspected Trump’s son-in-law Jared Kushner, whose father he had prosecuted as U.S. attorney.

“Oh, I asked,” Christie said, referring to Bannon. “He didn’t answer. But [based on] subsequent conversations I’ve had with the president, I just don’t believe this was the president’s decision.”

Aides later threw his transition materials in wastebaskets.

Christie, who often attributes his habit of feuding to his “Silician mom and Irish dad,” insists he holds no grudges. He said the president had made a smart decision to get rid of some aides—he named Bannon and Reince Priebus—and said others would be soon to go. Chief of staff John Kelly, he said, was doing much better. He declined to take a shot at Kushner when asked about the Trump son-in-law’s diminished White House role. “I would never underestimate Jared’s ability to be involved in whatever he wants to do be involved in,” Christie said.

***

Christie, who is only 55, won’t say what is next. He says he wants to make money and doesn’t plan to run for president again. He says he has no immediate plans to join the White House under Trump.

“He’s offered me two different Cabinet positions and three other really senior positions in the administration, and I’ve turned them all down because they weren’t stuff I was interested in,” he said.

He said there could be opportunities in media, at law firms and on Wall Street. He has joked that Mary Pat Christie, his investment banker wife, has told him he needs to realize his “earning potential.” But power and fame motivate Christie more than money, those closest to him say, and they think he’ll be back in the public glare.

When I came to see him, he was sitting in a conference room with two Coke cans, that large bowl of chili, a basket of wavy potato chips, gifts lining the walls, newspapers praising his ascent and Springsteen and a Notre Dame football sign outside the door reading, “PLAY LIKE A CHAMPION TODAY.” His daughter goes there, and he has become a fan.

I hadn’t seen Christie in two years since I covered him for the Wall Street Journal, but he started the conversation almost mid-sentence. His photographer had told me downstairs that Christie, a mercurial man, was in a fantastic mood. He only asked to go off the record twice.

Before I saw him, Christie was meeting with Phil Murphy, the next governor and a former Goldman Sachs executive who cast much of his campaign on a referendum against Christie. The New Jersey press corps no longer had much interest in Christie, instead clamoring outside in the cold to instead meet his successor.

Christie no longer holds court from his sprawling governor’s office; he closed the State House for repairs earlier this year, and is serving out his final days from a makeshift fifth-floor office in a drab, gray government building. One of his spartan walls has a lonely “Born to Run” Springsteen poster. A large sign on the streets of desolate Trenton notes where you can find Christie, when he is there.

He wasn’t in a bomb-throwing mood about Murphy and seemed to be still sizing him up—and looking for weaknesses. “I have no way of knowing,” he said when asked if Murphy was prepared for the job. “But I’m sure he’ll be ready and he’ll be fine by Inauguration Day. He’s a little overwhelmed now.”

His tight circle of aides is no longer with him. Many have been gone for years. Christie often keeps his own schedule and trusts his own counsel above all. In fact, some of his aides had no idea I was even on his schedule until the night before.

In person, Christie is eminently likable and convincing. He can say something that is not true without blinking an eyelid—and can almost convince you it is, even if you know better.

He still possesses all the assets that made him a rising GOP star and all of the flaws that led to his astonishing fall: relentless ambition and pragmatic competence, shrewd political instincts tempered by inexplicable blind spots, a penchant for vengeance and a volcanic temper, a keen sense of humor and an ability to project empathy, an obsession with fame but humility enough to keep up with old high school friends on Facebook.

“He is a dynamic, complicated figure that is too easily caricatured,” said Comella, who was at his side for all of it.

What Christie wanted me to see was that he was content, and proud of his record as governor.

The economy has improved, with unemployment falling from about 10 percent to about 5 percent. He ended the estate tax. He brought bail reform to New Jersey, a move widely hailed and followed by other states. He shined a light on opioids and eventually led the national commission while boosting funding to address the crisis at home.

Years from now, Christie said, people won’t hate him so much.

“I think the situation at the bridge started it. Then I think committing to being the RGA chairman, which led to a lot of travel being outside the state, it led to people believing I wasn’t able to do my job, which is kind of ridiculous. Then running for president. Again, which leads you beyond the state more and then lastly, endorsing the president—and he’s not popular here. That probably doesn’t make me popular in the state where he lost by double digits,” Christie said.

He added: “I never stopped my forward momentum, right? I may have slowed but you saw me back then. I didn’t get in the fetal position and say, ‘Please leave me alone,’” Christie said. “I kept moving.”

***

Those who have known Christie the longest tend to have the most complicated feelings about him.

Like Tom Kean—the former governor who nurtured and mentored Christie, only to become a critic.

Their connections run deep. After he said he wanted to get into politics, Christie’s mother drove him to Kean’s house and had her teenage son shadow Kean. Both families lived in Livingston. Kean, then a local politician, eventually became governor for two terms and was Christie’s biggest supporter. He swore him in to county government. He wrote a heaping letter praising Christie to become U.S. attorney. He was a trusted adviser.

Things changed as Christie rose. In 2013, Kean celebrated the governor’s re-election backstage. Two days later, Christie started a campaign to unseat Tom Kean Jr., the governor’s son, who was Senate minority leader. The two men had fought over state Senate races, and Christie wanted a more loyal ally in the job.

“I was happily congratulating him on his election one night. Two days later, he didn’t tell me—all of a sudden, guess what he’s doing, he’s making calls against your son,” Kean said.

But Republicans bucked him and kept Kean’s son in power. “It was the first time he’d been beaten in New Jersey,” Kean said of Christie, with a bit of familial pride.

Eventually, the two men talked, and Christie “came close to an apology,” Kean said. “I’m not sure he apologized, but that might be as close as you get from Chris Christie.”

The two men haven’t talked in over a year, Kean said. He said the governorship went downhill because Christie spent too much time out of state, didn’t listen to his staff and stopped caring in the past year, “spitting in people’s eyes.” Still, he praised some of Christie’s accomplishments, particularly on taxes.

“He’s not someone who likes criticism,” Kean said. “His problem is he had too many yes men on his staff.” Kean added: “He’ll resurface because he has too much ability not to.”

“This why it’s sad in a sense. He’s the most able politician I know, with possibly the exception of Bill Clinton,” Kean said. “I thought if he made use of that properly, he was going to be one of the state’s really great governors. He could have been one of the great governors.”

Sweeney, the state Senate president, paused for a few seconds when I asked him whether Christie was a good governor. Christie had met with Sweeney for 15 minutes in the middle of our interview, and he later suggested Sweeney, despite being a Democrat, might offer a solid testament to his success.

Sweeney said Christie was a tough fighter who had usually been honest with him, and that he was “pragmatic” and that “he’s a governor that used every inch of the power that was given to him by the constitution.”

“I think he did a good job at times. At times, he made mistakes,” Sweeney said. “He took some tough shots at some people on the way up. When you’re on your way up, everyone is with you. When you’re punching people, when you’re on your way down, those punches are coming back at you.”

After seeing Christie in Trenton, I reunited with Drewniak and Roberts, his former communications director, for dinner at the Langosta Lounge on the Asbury Park boardwalk.

Drewniak, towering and bald, had a reputation in Trenton as pugilistic. Yet deep down, Drewniak is a bit of a softie—he has two yapping dogs named Peanut and Lilly and can grow emotional on a dime. He is a master fisherman who grills a mean steak—and is ready to spend more time grilling and fishing than fighting political battles. He is also planning a move to Florida.

"I was thinking about talking to you,” Drewniak told me. “And he still freaks me out.”

Smoking cigarettes outside, with the famed Stone Pony in sight and waves crashing in, we made small talk with two locals. Both of them began torching Christie and praising Phil Murphy, the new governor, who threw his celebration party on the boardwalk Tuesday night. Christie threw his there four years ago.

Almost out of habit, Drewniak jumped in to defend the outgoing governor, his record and charisma. He introduced himself as “Mike,” leaving out his last name and longtime affiliation.

Politics

via Politico http://politi.co/2lnbIsw

November 17, 2017 at 02:27AM