This is month six or seven of me trying to figure out what Christie’s up to by pivoting towards becoming a (mild) Trump critic. At first I thought it was a moneymaking bid, raising his profile among Never Trumpers and Democrats before starting a PAC or whatever. Then I thought it was a play for a media gig somewhere, maybe hosting his own show. Then I wondered if it was possible that he believes he stands a chance in a primary against Trump.
But that can’t be it. There’s no way he’s that delusional.
So here’s my new hot take: Christie’s positioning himself as a Trump enemy in hopes that Trump will offer him something to get him to clam up. Christie was famously shut out of the first Trump administration, likely due to Jared Kushner holding a grudge against him for prosecuting his father in New Jersey. Maybe he sees the odds of a second Trump term rising and intends to land a cabinet position this time, possibly attorney general. At the moment, Christie has no national future. But if he ends up as the head of a federal agency and a major player in a new Trump presidency, that could change.
Conceivably the idea is to needle Trump until Trump decides he’d rather have Christie inside the tent pissing out and than outside the tent pissing in. Bring him back into the inner circle (or further into the inner circle than he was before) and he’ll clam up instead of saying stuff like this.
If I’m wrong, what’s the alternative? That he’s going to challenge Trump in a primary and aim to be the Great Never Trump Hope? The problem with that theory, besides its ultimate futility, is that Chris Christie is almost singularly ill-positioned to endear himself to Republican anti-Trumpers. There may be no politician in the United States who did more to mainstream Trump’s candidacy in 2016 than Christie himself did. Tim Miller:
Desperate for attention and a campaign where he could have “influence,” Christie surveyed the field and decided that once he had been defeated the only choice was to present to his dominant and endorse Trump
Endorsements normally mean very little, but this one was significant, right up there with Ted Kennedy blessing Obama, because it provided the permission structure that institutionally Republican voters needed to support an unorthodox candidate.
Christie didn’t deliver a specific cohort of voters to Trump—he had just got schlonged in a primary in which he received 0 delegates. But his support gave a stamp of credibility to a thoroughly uncredible candidate. He was the first prominent “mainstream” or “establishment” Republican to take the plunge. Newt Gingrich laid this out at the time, tweeting that Christie “introducing and standing with Trump gave the event a sense of seriousness.”
So right at the moment when the Republican party needed to unite against Trump, Christie gassed the fellow up.
You can write a decent counterfactual that if Christie doesn’t run in 2016, Trump doesn’t win. Without Christie onstage at the New Hampshire debate, maybe no one embarrasses Marco Rubio and halts his rise in the polls. Rubio could end up winning that primary and then never look back. Maybe Christie ends up endorsing Rubio in that scenario, ultimately denouncing Trump as too fringy to be worthy of a sitting governor’s support.
Instead, he not only backed Trump, he resorted to months of sycophancy, as Miller describes in gory detail.
So, sure, if Christie challenged Trump in 2024 he’d get plenty of lesser-of-two-evils votes from anti-Trumpers but he’d receive none of the admiration that a more principled Trump critic like Liz Cheney would. In fact, Christie seldom criticizes Trump in the terms Cheney does. To Cheney, Trump is a threat to American democracy, an authoritarian who’d cling to power with or without the support of the people if given the chance. To Christie, Trump is a threat to the party; he told the Republican Jewish Coalition a few days ago that righties need to put 2020 behind them because the obsession with “stop the steal” is hampering the GOP’s ability to win.
If Cheney primaried Trump and inevitably lost, it’s impossible to imagine her endorsing him in the general election. If Christie primaried Trump and inevitably lost, it’s impossible to imagine him not doing so.
In fact, let me clarify my hot take above. I wonder if Christie’s play isn’t to cause Trump just enough grief in a primary that Republican leaders start pressuring Trump to unite the party by nominating Christie as VP. If so, Christie’s criticism of Trump would need to be restrained; the more he bruised Trump’s ego on the trail, the more Trump would refuse to entertain the idea out of spite. But if he pulled 15-20 percent in a series of primaries, some establishment GOPers might fret that that’s enough of a bloc to tank the party’s chances in the general election if they stay home. A Trump/Christie ticket would theoretically bring everyone together, from Republicans who think Trump is a national savior to Republicans who think he’s, uh, a cancer on democracy. Talk about a big tent.