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Pence replaces Christie as leader of Trump transition effort

Vice President-elect Mike Pence. (Mark Wilson/Getty Images)

Vice President-elect Mike Pence will replace New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie as chairman of President-elect Donald Trump’s presidential transition effort, a change that will cement the Indiana governor’s influence over the incoming administration’s policy and personnel.

Trump, in a broad transition shake-up announced Friday, also gave his son-in-law and three eldest children official roles as transition advisers. The involvement of Trump’s adult children raises the specter of conflicts of interest, since they are poised to manage Trump’s businesses over the next four years.

The changes within the transition effort will substantially dilute the influence of Christie and his closest aides, add a conservative edge to the upper level of Trump’s team and formally empower Trump’s family in decisions about his administration. Rick Dearborn, chief of staff to Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.), will serve as the transition’s executive director, replacing ex-Christie chief of staff Richard Bagger. Sessions is a Trump loyalist and a hard-line voice on immigration. The three Trump children — Donald Jr., Eric and Ivanka Trump — and Jared Kushner, Ivanka’s husband, will serve on the transition’s executive committee.

The move comes after two former aides to Christie, whose administration in New Jersey has been hobbled by scandal, were convicted for their roles in politically motivated lane closures on the George Washington Bridge.

Christie remains involved in the transition and was named a vice chair on Friday, along with Sessions, former New York mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani, former House speaker Newt Gingrich, retired Lt. Gen. Michael Flynn and Republican presidential primary contender Ben Carson — all considered likely members of a Trump administration.

Trump loyalists, inner circle poised to claim top government roles

“Together this outstanding group of advisors, led by Vice President-elect Mike Pence, will build on the initial work done under the leadership of New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie to help prepare a transformative government ready to lead from day one,” Trump said in a statement.

“The mission of our team will be clear: put together the most highly qualified group of successful leaders who will be able to implement our change agenda in Washington,” the statement said. “Together, we will begin the urgent task of rebuilding this nation — specifically jobs, security and opportunity.”

Trump repeatedly vowed to "drain the swamp" in D.C. but seems to be doing the exact opposite. (Video: Deirdra O'Regan/The Washington Post)

The changes come as the transition effort races to organize personnel and policy for the administration that will begin Jan. 20. Three days after Trump’s surprise victory over Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton and one day after Trump met with leaders in Washington, campaign insiders spent Friday at Trump Tower in Manhattan discussing the next steps.

The group included Christie, who met privately Thursday with campaign chairman and Breitbart News chief Steve Bannon for several hours, according to two people familiar with the meeting who requested anonymity to discuss Friday’s shake-up.

A senior Republican briefed on the Trump transition team’s deliberations said Trump confidants, including Kushner and banker Steven Mnuchin, his campaign’s national finance co-chairman and a possible Cabinet appointee, felt the transition team was too loyal to Christie and wanted to assert Trump’s influence on the operation. The Republican spoke on the condition of anonymity because the talks have been confidential.

“The Trump high command felt like the president-elect needed to get control of his transition,” this person said. “It was populated with Christie loyalists, not that they weren’t for Trump, and it didn’t appear to be as ramped up as it should have been. So taking a page from George W. Bush’s book, he decided to put his vice president in charge.”

Pence and Christie also met privately on Thursday for about 90 minutes, according to one Republican briefed on the meeting.

Christie’s sidelining comes as he is increasingly consumed by the so-called Bridgegate scandal, in which George Washington Bridge traffic lanes were closed as political retribution against the Democratic mayor of Fort Lee, N.J. Christie has claimed he did not know about the scheme at the time, but multiple witnesses in the corruption trial against his former aides said he did know. The Democratic majority leader of the New Jersey Senate called Thursday for impeachment proceedings against Christie, who is seen as unable to focus full-time on transition work.

Other people familiar with Friday’s developments played down the reduction in Christie’s power but acknowledged that he had been layered in the inner circle. They described Sessions and Dearborn as low-key presences at Trump Tower in recent days and the “natural” successors to Christie because of their loyalty to the candidate and populist instincts. Neither clashed with Christie, the people said.

The appointment of Dearborn is intended to install someone well known to Congress to serve as a bridge between Trump Tower and Capitol Hill, helping recruit talent and processing incoming requests and résumés from lawmakers. Pence is also bringing on three of his senior advisers — Nick Ayers, Josh Pitcock and Marc Short — to assist him on transition work.

Other prominent Trump allies, including Mnuchin, Bannon, billionaire investor Peter Thiel and Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Priebus, will serve on the 16-person executive committee alongside Trump’s children and son-in-law.

Ethics experts and Trump opponents raised questions about the younger Trumps’ participation in the transition, given the Trump Organization’s announcement Friday that it is working to “immediately transfer” company leadership to them.

“The notion that Trump would put his company into a blind trust run by his children was already a total farce. Now, it’s even more alarming that his children will be involved in the government while managing his dangerous conflicts of interest with our adversaries,” said Jessica Mackler, the president of the liberal group American Bridge 21st Century.

Other members of the executive committee are Reps. Lou Barletta (R-Pa.), Marsha Blackburn (R-Tenn.), Tom Marino (R-Pa.) and Devin Nunes (R-Calif.); Florida Attorney General Pam Bondi; conservative donor Rebekah Mercer; and New York investor Anthony Scaramucci.

The transition staff will include figures familiar from Trump’s campaign: Kellyanne Conway as senior adviser, Don McGahn as general counsel, David Bossie as deputy executive director, Stephen Miller as national policy director, Jason Miller as communications director and Hope Hicks as national press secretary. Dan Scavino will continue to run the social-media operation. RNC Chief of Staff Katie Walsh will serve as another senior adviser.

Prominent Christie allies Bagger and Bill Palatucci, who formerly served as the transition’s general counsel, will return to the private sector. Trump’s announcement stated they would remain “advisers” to the transition.

“The signal is they’ve lost confidence in Christie and that Mike Pence will have a very outsized role,” Republican consultant Rick Tyler said of the changes. “Everything that is happening reflects the new dynamics and how Trump is going to be as president, focusing on the big picture and leaving details to others.”

“You’ve got people coming in who are going to help him with his agenda,” added Tyler, a longtime adviser to Gingrich. “This is going to be a team that’s ready to work with Paul Ryan and Congress.”

Giuliani was among the insiders who spent part of the day at Trump Tower. “I can see already how he is going to be a great president,” he told reporters in the lobby.

Sean Sullivan contributed to this report.

Former New York mayor Rudy Giuliani told reporters Friday that his advice to President-elect Donald Trump is "out of great loyalty." (Video: Victoria Walker/The Washington Post)