Gov. Chris Christie’s secretly-conceived decision last week to endorse Donald Trump has provoked shock, anger and disappointment, coming from his own inner circle to long loyal New Jersey Republicans to those who ran his presidential campaign.
The chief beef: A man thought to prioritize policy sold out to a hateful demagogue for a last chance at political prominence.
Although Trump and Christie have been friends for 14 years, Trump has made scores of comments offensive to minorities and women while Christie has a long history of reaching out to the marginalized in New Jersey — particularly Hispanics and Muslims, two groups who feel most maligned by Trump. Close Christie allies, speaking on the condition of anonymity in order to avoid offending the governor, now fear those gains may be lost, and his reputation as a big tent Republican irreparably damaged for associating so closely with Trump.
Women were the first to raise their voices against Christie’s decision this weekend. Meg Whitman, a former California gubernatorial candidate and the national finance co-chair for his failed presidential campaign, called Christie’s endorsement “an astonishing display of political opportunism.”
Joining the chorus were former New Jersey Gov. Christie Todd Whitman (“I am ashamed that Christie would endorse anyone who has employed the kind of hate mongering and racism that Trump has”), Jennifer Rubin, a conservative blogger who has been a stalwart Christie booster (“Chris Christie, you’re nothing to me now”) and one of his top fundraisers, Bobbie Kilberg (“I don’t get it”).
Christie also appears to have made the endorsement without the involvement of his closest associates, like chief media liaison, Maria Comella, who was his top governmental adviser before she co-managed his presidential campaign.
Instead of Comella, the Trump campaign directed Christie’s post-endorsement press schedule. And the roll-out — the governor’s not-so triumphant return to the national stage after his candidacy failed — did not go smoothly.
Following the noon endorsement on Friday, CNN announced that Christie would appear on Sunday’s “State of the Union” program with Jake Tapper, who has interviewed the governor several times in the past. But a source familiar with the matter said Christie’s camp grew concerned that Tapper was going to aggressively question Christie about Trump, and on Saturday night the governor bailed on the interview. This is unusual in the world of Sunday morning network news shows, and the Trump campaign offered the candidate himself in Christie’s place. (That led to an interview in which Trump refused to denounce a former KKK leader’s support for his campaign.)
Representatives for Christie and CNN didn’t respond to requests for comment. But Tapper tweeted this Sunday: “I can’t read anything into it, I was just stunned. Very unlike him.”
Meanwhile, Christie kept his appointment for a Sunday interview on ABC’s “This Week” with George Stephanopoulos, who is considered an easier interviewer based on their previous exchanges. But Christie ended up getting blindsided by Stephanopoulos, who forced the governor to account for how he had previously criticized Trump on all of his most significant policy positions. In one particularly difficult exchange, Christie refused to say he disagreed with Trump’s ban on Muslims — even though as a candidate, he had brought this up as an indication that Trump wasn’t fit to serve as president.
“I’m saying that’s only one piece of an overall approach to national security,” Christie said.
Christie also found himself deflecting questions about whether Trump’s proposal to build a wall on the Mexican border was racist, even though he himself had made fun of the wall at almost every campaign town hall he held.
Eventually, Christie just blamed the media for being too tough on Trump.
In his more than six years as governor, this was likely the roughest interview he has ever sat for.
Over the course of the weekend, social media flared up against Christie more vociferously than it has in more than a year, when he celebrated a Dallas Cowboys touchdown on national television by jumping up and down in the luxury box of Cowboys owner Jerry Jones. Former supporters denounced Christie on Twitter, and on Facebook, New Jersey’s most prominent conservative blogger got into a war of words with Christie’s brother, Todd. The blogger, Matt Rooney, said Trump’s failure to denounce the KKK proved that Trump didn’t “represent” him and his family.
New Jersey Republicans in the state privately expressed concern that Trump’s presence at the top of the Republican ticket in November could hurt them in local races, while Muslim leaders publicly repudiated the comments from a governor who had been seen as a vocal defender of their rights.
Current and former supporters of the governor believe he made a savvy political move out of crass self-interest — he wanted to pick an early winner in the race for the Republican nomination so he can maintain a prominent role as a Trump surrogate and potentially land a job in the Trump Administration. He was also said to be itching for a return to the spotlight after his candidacy ended Feb. 10 — which he got, introducing Trump in San Antonio to a crowd of tens of thousands, far larger than anything he saw as an actual presidential candidate.
Back in New Jersey, county GOP leaders were taken aback because they were supposed to meet with Christie this week, when they expected to talk about possible endorsements. They were also starting to coalesce around Florida Sen. Marco Rubio, whom Christie harbors personal disdain for (the New York Times reported Christie thought Rubio was disrespectful to him in a recent voicemail message).
So Christie didn’t want to back Rubio and he needed to act fast — supporting Trump before Super Tuesday, which could propel the candidate to the nomination, maximizes the value of an endorsement.
Whether New Jersey Republicans likewise support Trump will be seen as a critical test of loyalty to the governor in a state that even members of Team Christie feel he is too anxious to leave behind.
Asked by the New York Times if Christie’s “inclusive-minded” reputation as a Republican was now at risk, Ray Washburne, Christie’s finance chairman for his presidential campaign, said: “That’s sure what a lot of people think. I’m still shocked and dismayed.”