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Katz on Christie

A regular blog that keeps tabs on the activities and fortunes of our renowned Governor, Chris Christie.
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Trump's Inner Circle Cut Its Teeth In New Jersey

Matt Katz | June 6, 2016

At a rally in Lawrenceville, a couple of weeks ago, Donald Trump showed his respect to New Jersey as only he can. "There’s nothing like New Jersey — wiseguys, so many wiseguys," he said. "I tell you, if you can make it in New Jersey you can do just about anything you want in life."

Casinos. Golf courses. And one ill-fated professional football team. Trump, the presumptive Republican presidential nominee, has a long, colorful and well-known history in New Jersey. But so does his political team. Several of the key people Trump relies on for political advice cut their teeth in New Jersey politics.

Chris Christie: This is Team Trump's most obvious New Jersey name. Trump's former rival and his first major endorser is the chairman of Trump's transition team to the White House. Christie's job, he said last month, is to fill positions in the White House staff and cabinet while devising a plan for the first 200 days of the Trump Administration. Christie and Trump talk almost every day  during an interview last month on New Jersey 101.5 FM, Trump called Christie on his cell, twice (he didn't answer). Christie's political team is helping out, too: Bill Palatucci, Christie's longest-serving adviser, is connecting Trump to moneyed members of the Republican establishment. Ken McKay, Christie's former presidential campaign manager, is setting up a pro-Trump super PAC. And an unnamed member of Christie's staff reportedly helped Trump retract his statement proposing that women be punished for having abortions.

Paul Manafort: One part of the two-man team running Trump’s campaign is Manafort, a lobbyist known for representing foreign oligarchs with dodgy human rights records. Before that, Manafort was operating in New Jersey, helping Gov. Tom Kean, Sr. wrangle county delegates for him in 1981. "He did the Middlesex convention for me  getting delegates, getting my endorsements for governor," Kean said. "He was in there for three weeks talking to every single potential delegate who was going to vote in that convention and decide on an endorsement. And he could be very persuasive. He was generally better at that than anyone else, which is the reason why I hired him." 

That's also why 25 years later, Trump hired Manafort to do the very same thing. Manafort was initially brought on by Trump to help him secure the nomination in a contested convention. With that nomination now all but assured, Manafort appears to have taken on a broader role running the campaign.

Manafort has one other New Jersey connection: In 1989, he was hauled before Congress to testify about a $326,000 consulting fee he collected for a Housing and Urban Development project in South Jersey that local officials opposed.

Roger Stone: Manafort’s former business partner, Roger Stone, is a self-admitted political dirty trickster with a taste for fancy suits and a tattoo of Richard Nixon sprawled across his back. Stone has no official role with the Trump campaign, but he told WNYC that he regularly speaks with the candidate. Stone offers advice and acts as an attack dog from afar, defaming President Clinton as a rapist and linking Ted Cruz's father to the assassination of President John F. Kennedy. But long before his involvement with the Trump campaign, he was a senior adviser in New Jersey to both of Kean's campaigns for governor. "This was my first major statewide consulting gig on my own, so I virtually lived in New Jersey," Stone said.

Stone's philosophies  "admit nothing, deny everything, launch counterattack" and "politics is not about uniting people; it’s about dividing people" are hallmarks of Trump's campaign. Stone has been banned from appearing on CNN after sending offensive tweets about its personalities, but he is often interviewed on other outlets. 

Jared Kushner: When Kushner married Ivanka Trump, Donald's oldest daughter, the wedding at Trump National Golf Club in Bedminster, NJ, could have been mistaken for the union of two royal families. Celebrities and politicos were well-represented, from former New York City Republican Mayor Rudy Giuliani, now a Trump presidential supporter, to New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo, a Democrat who has endorsed Hillary Clinton. Kushner is the scion of a family that had a political and real estate empire in New Jersey. His father, Charles, was the top fundraiser for Democratic New Jersey Gov. Jim McGreevey and in line for a plum political gig chairman of the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey. But then Chris Christie, who was US Attorney of New Jersey at the time, indicted Charles Kushner in 2004 for illegal campaign contributions, tax evasion and witness tampering.

Charles went to prison but Jared dove into the family business of politics and development. He bought the New York Observer newspaper (which recently endorsed Trump for president) and PolitickerNJ.com (the New Jersey political site created by David Wildstein, who has since pleaded guilty in the Bridgegate scheme). Kushner’s political leanings are decidedly Democratic at least when it comes to campaign contributions. In 2009, records show, Kushner's family members gave $60,000 to New Jersey Sen. Cory Booker, a Democrat who is now a chief attack dog for Clinton against Kushner's father-in-law. Four years later Jared and Ivanka hosted a fundraiser for Booker at their Trump Park Avenue penthouse. Meanwhile, Ivanka gave more than $10,000 to Democratic U.S. Rep. Donald Norcross, the brother of George Norcross, an old Trump friend who is the most powerful Democratic political power broker in New Jersey.

Now, the Kushners are Trump Republicans. And apparently Jared has developed a taste for politics. He’s the only spouse of the Trump children whom Trump regularly thanks in public. "I mean honestly Jared is a very successful real estate person," Trump said after a recent primary win. "But I actually think he likes politics more than real estate...and he’s very good at politics."

Like Trump, Kushner knows that in New Jersey, relationships and money are the lingua franca of doing business. Kushner has several real estate developments in Jersey City, including a new Trump tower, and ties to Jersey City Mayor Steve Fulop, a possible Democratic gubernatorial candidate. But Kushner also finds time to join Trump for high-profile meetings  like a recent one with Henry Kissinger, the former Secretary of State. An observant Jew, Kushner also helped to write a speech that Trump gave to a pro-Israel group, and he may accompany Trump to Israel next month.

But, most notably, Kushner works with the man who sent his father to prison. Kushner and Christie are both involved in planning a transition to a Trump White House.

Don McGahn: Trump's campaign lawyer is an Atlantic City native and controversial former chairman of the Federal Election Commission. He's also the nephew of long-time Atlantic City power broker Paddy McGahn a casino lawyer once known as Trump's political fixer in Atlantic City. Some 30 years ago, when Trump still had his casinos, Paddy McGahn helped Trump schmooze local politicians. He even represented Trump in a dispute with a boardwalk hot dog vendor. Now, Paddy's nephew is the top lawyer for the presumptive Republican nominee for president.

Matt Katz, New Jersey Public Radio/WNYC
Political reporter Matt Katz is The Christie Tracker at WNYC.org. NJ Spotlight is hosting his blog and running his stories, which can also be heard on WNYC 93.9 FM and 820 AM, as well as New Jersey Public Radio: Trenton 88.1, Sussex 88.5, Netcong 89.3, and Toms River 90.3.
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