To loyal fans of Chris Christie, his interview Monday with NBC must come as a relief: the New Jersey governor took a small chance to throw his one-time foe Donald Trump under the bus.
“It’s the candidate’s campaign. It’s not my campaign,” Christie said of the latest wave of scandal to hit Trump, who he is supporting for president. “I’m proud of everything I’ve said and that’s all I can control. The rest of it I can’t control.”
These lukewarm comments aren’t the only sign Christie is distancing himself from the GOP presidential nominee’s campaign.
A rare presence on the trail (unlike fellow Trump surrogate Rudy Giuliani), the governor reportedly did not appear alongside Trump at an event in New Jersey on Saturday night. And when asked recently about Trump’s 2005 comments to Billy Bush, Christie called them “completely indefensible.” (To NBC, he said he took Trump “at his word” that women’s allegations of sexual harassment are false, but quickly pivoted to another topic.)
The irony is that Christie’s work within the Trump operation — running his presidential transition — continues apace in spite of his apparent desire to disassociate himself from Trump.
That’s partly thanks to ex-Christie chief of staff Rich Bagger, a powerful force who is all-but-unknown outside New Jersey politics.
A pharmaceutical executive on leave to direct Trump’s transition, Bagger is at the center of a group of increasingly beleaguered aides trying to plan a sober transition for one of the least predictable presidential candidates in recent memory. Members of Trump’s transition continue to work toward specific goals and to attend regular meetings, including those convened by the Partnership for Public Service, even as new controversies dog the campaign.
This is because transition officials see it as their duty to prepare for the possibility of a new government, regardless of whether that government ever comes to pass. (A slew of forecasts are currently predicting Trump will lose to Hillary Clinton, but yes, the transition is still working.)
Bagger, who participated in Christie’s transition as governor, is said to embrace this view. “He’s setting the tone, telling people to keep their heads down,” said one ally.
Bagger hails from Westfield, N.J., where he served on the town council and was elected mayor at 29. A lifelong Republican, he told the Princeton Alumni Weekly in 1980 he was “verbally abused” on campus for posting notices about GOP activities.
Upon leaving Westfield, Bagger journeyed through New Jersey state politics, including five terms in the Assembly and a partial term in the Senate.
His legislative career is seen as the root of the wonkish tendencies Bagger applies to transition planning. As Christie’s top aide, Bagger developed policy ideas that were turned into bills by Jeff Chiesa, Christie’s chief counsel. Together, Bagger, Chiesa and deputy chief counsel Kevin O’Dowd formed what was dubbed “the triumvirate,” wielding immense power over state leaders.
Bagger’s other work is in the pharmaceutical sector. He occupied senior roles at Pfizer for more than 16 years prior to joining the Christie administration, including during the 11 or so he served in the state legislature. After leaving the governor’s office, he joined the Celgene Corporation, an international bio-pharmaceutical firm whose executive chairman this summer supported Trump as a delegate at the Republican convention.
Bagger’s career exemplifies some of the revolving-door practices that ethics watchdogs have criticized, a pattern that might elicit criticism should Trump win the election.
His name has also come up in a handful of reports related to the so-called Bridgegate scandal that has raised questions about Christie’s political future.
Appointed by Christie to the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey in 2012, Bagger was listed in at least one press account as a possible government witness in the legal battle over the lane-closing incident. Key prosecution witness David Wildstein also said he met with Christie’s inner circle, including Bagger, in 2010 to decide which Port Authority employees hired under Democratic governors could remain in their jobs.
At a volatile time on the Trump campaign, sources close to the transition say Bagger continues with his calm but exacting approach. “He is one of those guys who prides himself in [sic] the issues where everyone else’s eyes glaze over,” former Westfield Mayor Tom Jardim told Patch.com in 2009.
He is also said to be quite intolerant of leaks.