He was in. And then he was out. And now, he’s – well, it’s hard to tell exactly where New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie stands in the intrigue-filled orbit of those who surround the president-elect of the United States.
What is clear is that Christie has become an object lesson of the perils that face those who try to navigate Donald Trump’s world, a place where loyalty is demanded but not always one where it is returned in kind.
Nine days after the public humiliation of being unceremoniously dumped as the head of Trump’s presidential transition, Christie on Sunday showed up among the parade of potential Trump administration job seekers to meet with the president-elect at his New Jersey golf course.
Asked if there would be a place for Christie in his administration, Trump did not exactly say yes. Instead, he declared Christie “a very talented” man, who is also “really smart and tough.”
A half-hour later, Trump ushered Christie out, following a private session that both men pronounced to have been a positive one.
Also among those who met with Trump on Sunday was former New York mayor Rudy Giuliani, who is said to be under consideration for secretary of state.
How the Trump-Christie relationship came asunder – and whether there is any chance of putting it back together – suggests cautionary lessons for anyone in close proximity to the president-elect.
Trumpworld is a place where there are dueling centers of power, where actual motives are opaque and where only those related by blood or marriage are ever truly trusted and invulnerable.
“Trump’s little black book of people he trusts in politics is two pages long. The way it runs, which isn’t in Trump’s interest, is like court politics for some potentate in the 17th century,” said veteran GOP consultant Mike Murphy, who has been a vocal Trump critic. “It’s a snake pit where people die. But even when people die, they can get resurrected when there’s a vacuum.”
Former Republican National Committee chairman Michael Steele, who worked with Christie informally on the transition, said he would like to see the governor have a role in the new administration.
“My hope is that no one has sidelined Chris Christie. That would be a mistake. It goes beyond loyalty,” Steele said. “It’s about competence and that’s something I’m sure isn’t lost on Donald Trump, even if there are storms brewing in the family.”
Trump and Christie are old friends, going back years before either decided to run for the highest office in the land.
When his own bid faltered, Christie became the earliest big national name to get behind Trump’s campaign – awkwardly at times and at a cost to his own stature.
On Super Tuesday in March, Christie’s discomfort as he stood onstage behind Trump at his victory rally was so evident that it quickly became an Internet meme and prompted Rep. Justin Amash, R-Mich., to tweet that it looked like “a hostage situation.”
When Trump headlined a fundraiser in May to help Christie retire his campaign debt, he pointed at the portly New Jersey governor asked: “You’re not eating Oreos anymore, are you?”
And then Trump passed over Christie in selecting his vice-presidential running mate, picking instead another governor whom he barely knew.
But entrusting Christie last May with putting together a transition had been seen as a sign of how crucial he had become to the New York real estate mogul. The combative, quick-witted New Jersey governor had also been deemed invaluable during Trump’s debate preparation, where he played the role of Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton.
Christie’s camp also recalls that he used his political muscle to help deliver New Jersey’s 51 Republican convention delegates to Trump – an important boost at a time when there was talk that the Cleveland convention might be brokered.
So it came as a shock to Christie, his allies say, when he was informed three days after the election that he was out as head of the transition, to be replaced by Vice President-elect Mike Pence.
“He was just taken by surprise,” said one Christie ally, who asked for anonymity to speak frankly. “I don’t think he has any inkling.”
The news was delivered not by Trump, but by campaign chief executive Stephen K. Bannon, whom Trump subsequently named as his pick to become his top White House strategist.
Soon, most of the people Christie had brought in to run the transition were gone as well.
The Christie associate noted that the New Jersey governor had been meeting weekly with Trump’s adult children, as well as his son-in-law Jared Kushner, to brief them on transition planning, and that they had signed off on everything he had done.
Christie’s camp speculates that Kushner might have been the driving force in banishing the New Jersey governor. As a federal prosecutor, Christie prosecuted Kushner’s father, who in 2005 was sent to prison for tax evasion, witness tampering and illegal campaign contributions.
“I don’t know if that was all because of Jared. It’s hard to explain it any other way,” one Christie associate said.
Trump advisers, however, insist that Kushner played no role in the decision to hand over the management of the transition to Pence. They say the problem was Christie’s own performance.
One of the few things that Christie’s and Trump’s camps agree upon is that Trump had not paid all that much attention to his transition operation until after the surprising Nov. 8 election that made it clear he would actually need it.
Trump’s camp says it was then they discovered that Christie had installed lobbyists in key posts, undermining Trump’s frequent vow as a candidate that he would “drain the swamp.”
“The overall organization wasn’t where it should be,” said one Trump adviser. “Things just weren’t put together very well.”
They were also concerned about lingering fallout from the Nov. 4 conviction of two former Christie aides of charges stemming from a scheme to snarl traffic near the George Washington Bridge in 2013 to punish a mayor who had not endorsed the governor’s re-election.
“Chris has taken a justifiable pounding from Team Trump because the post bridge-gate world reveals the raw flaws,” said New Jersey state Sen. Joseph Kyrillos, R, his former gubernatorial campaign chairman. “But he’s smart and resilient and will likely find a way back.”
(c) 2016, The Washington Post · Karen Tumulty, Robert Costa