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Chris Christie’s convenient anti-Trump turn, and its utility

It should be judged against what Christie said about the expediency of his relationship with Trump. But its critics might also learn a lesson in such political expediency.

Chris Christie listens as President Donald Trump speaks during a news briefing in September 2020. (Salwan Georges/The Washington Post)
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Pretty much every time an ex-Trump ally comes out against the former president, the resistance cries foul. Where were you before, the chorus asks. You’re just doing it now because it’s convenient, it claims.

And in Chris Christie, it has a case in point. The former New Jersey governor’s apparent decision to step forward as a high-profile Trump critic comes after he became the first high-profile establishment Republican to legitimize Donald Trump in 2016. It also comes after Christie has, very importantly, admitted on multiple occasions that his relationship with Trump was one of political expedience. So why should this latest episode not be judged accordingly?

It should be. But Trump’s critics do themselves a disservice by ignoring the potential advantages of such political expedience.

The relationship between Christie and Trump is one that, from the beginning, has contained multitudes. A quick recap:

  • Christie attacked Trump when they ran among a crowded field during the 2016 GOP presidential primaries as a “carnival barker” and an unserious entertainer who was effectively moonlighting as a politician. Christie suggested that nominating Trump would help hand the presidency to Hillary Clinton.
  • After abandoning his own presidential campaign, Christie also abandoned his past Trump criticisms to become the first truly high-profile, establishment Republican to endorse Trump, lending Trump unprecedented political credibility. Christie suddenly reversed his comments about Trump’s unelectability, saying that “there is no one who is better prepared to provide America with the strong leadership that it needs, both at home and around the world, than Donald Trump.”
  • What followed was Trump inexplicably saddling Christie with several indignities. The episodes almost seemed deliberately aimed at making Christie regret what he had done — think, Oreos and McDonald’s — before Trump bypassed him as a running mate.
  • Christie proceeded to try his luck at seemingly serving as Trump’s better angel, criticizing him and his administration — often gently — while trying to retain a seat at the table.
  • Trump’s challenge to the 2020 election results and the Jan. 6 Capitol riot (along with his no longer being president) have apparently pushed Christie into a more combative anti-Trump role.

All of this should be viewed in the context Christie has himself provided. While explaining his evolution on Trump, the former governor acknowledged saying things that he might or might not have truly believed for political effect.

In September 2016, Christie said, “Yes, I disagreed with Donald Trump at the time. Big shock. I was running against him. … Of course I disagreed with him, because I was running against him.”

After the Jan. 6 insurrection, Christie more explicitly acknowledged that his 2016 endorsement of Trump was a pragmatic one — and not necessarily what he professed to believe at the time about Trump’s electability.

“I was absolutely convinced that there was no one left on that stage in the Republican primary who was going to beat Donald Trump. He was going to be our nominee,” Christie told the New Yorker’s Isaac Chotiner, despite at the time pitching Trump as the actual best nominee.

Christie added: “And, secondly, I was absolutely committed to Hillary Clinton not being president of the United States. So, given my relationship with Donald Trump over all those years, I felt like if I got in early and helped him I could have influence in making him a better candidate and, ultimately, a better president. And I think I did both those things.”

So here we have a guy who has pretty much admitted that he just … said things to try to gain political influence. All of that said, on a strictly pragmatic level, Christie is a potentially unique figure.

In his latest comments responding to Trump, Christie notes that he easily won reelection in a blue state in 2013, while Trump lost reelection in 2020.

“I’m not gonna get into a back-and-forth with Donald Trump,” Christie insisted. “But what I will say is this: When I ran for reelection in 2013, I got 60 percent of the vote. When he ran for reelection, he lost to Joe Biden.”

The comparison isn’t as good as Christie would like it to be, especially given how poorly his second term as New Jersey governor wound up being received and how much his political stock declined. (Trump, in his rebuttal, exaggerated Christie’s low approval rating, though it was indeed bad.)

But it’s also one that is undersold in the GOP right now. Trump in 2020 became the first president since 1932 to lose the White House, the House and the Senate in a single term. Yet Republicans, who launched an “autopsy” after their 2012 loss, don’t really want to talk about that or how Trump very obviously makes it more difficult for his party to win, given his continued hold on the base. Here is a guy, Christie, who is cutting at that most fundamental of Trump conceits: that Trump is a winner.

There’s also Christie’s realized-and-then-unrealized political talent. His governorship fell apart in New Jersey, clearly. Christie, though, is someone who has demonstrated his ability to drive a message via force of will and a strong personality. There are very few people on the right willing to push that message, and far fewer who have the ability to actually do it and welcome the wrath that comes with it. The highest-profile exception to that appears to be Liz Cheney, but she’s a House member, and she has a reelection bid to worry about.

Christie’s evolution on Trump should always be viewed with skepticism, given how much he has evolved in the past and his admissions about the reasons for that evolution. It might indeed only last as long as Christie decides it’s tenable politically, and not so much morally. But in a party in which few people have the desire or heft to truly press the case, it’s worth watching — to the extent that he’s actually committed to his current course of action, that is.