How Christie lost his spot on the Trump transition team
Something was bothering Donald Trump as he made his victory speech after the election. The newly minted president-elect took the stage with at least 40 of his closest aides and allies, but according to a high-level campaign source familiar with Trump’s thinking, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie kept pushing to be near the president-elect and “trying to get in shots.”
“Trump got annoyed,” the source told Yahoo News.
The election night photo incident was one of several factors Trump insiders cited to explain why Christie was demoted from his position as transition team chair and replaced by Vice President-elect Mike Pence on Nov. 11.
Contrary to some press reports, Christie’s downfall wasn’t the result of friction with Trump’s son-in-law and adviser Jared Kushner, campaign sources said. Instead, Trump thought Christie was mishandling the transition, and he had “growing concerns” about the governor’s role in the Bridgegate scandal, in which two of Christie’s close aides were convicted of conspiracy on Nov. 4. During the trial, witnesses testified that Christie was aware of the planning of the scheme. Although the governor has steadfastly denied any role in the plan to tie up traffic in Fort Lee, N.J., to punish its mayor, when the verdict was announced, a pair of campaign appearances Christie was set to make for Trump were abruptly canceled.
“There were just some things that were not handled appropriately or done to a level of satisfaction and professionalism,” the high-level source said of the transition team under Christie.
This account was confirmed by two other Trump campaign sources, but those close to Christie disputed it. One Christie ally suggested the transition only got off to a turbulent start because Trump and his campaign team didn’t expect to win the race and didn’t engage with the transition process prior to his surprise victory.
Yahoo News reached out to Christie’s office for a comment on this story. The governor’s office referred us to Trump spokesman Jason Miller, who did not respond. We also tried to contact Christie directly, but he did not respond to requests for comment. However, a source close to Christie refuted the idea that the transition effort was mismanaged during his tenure. The source described the team under Christie as a “very professional organization.”
“I can’t tell you whether or not Trump was frustrated or not, but tons of good work was done by the transition team before the election. Hundreds of people were suggested and vetted for tier one appointments. Hundreds of people were identified for landing teams [for liaison with government agencies]. There were serious implementation plans written for over a dozen major policy initiatives that were put forward on the campaign trail,” the source close to Christie said.
The Christie source said there was nothing unusual in Trump’s replacing Christie with Pence.
“It is natural that the president-elect would want the vice president to take a major role, and that the campaign team would become the major players in the transition,” a source close to Christie said.
A second source close to Christie echoed the notion that it was “entirely natural” for Pence to take over. They also pointed out there was historical precedent for this, since then Vice President Dick Cheney took over former President George W. Bush’s transition team from other aides after they won the presidential election in 2000.
“It is entirely natural for there to be a transition in the transition as it moves from planning to execution phases,” said the Christie source.
However, in addition to the three Trump campaign sources who spoke to Yahoo News, two junior staffers also described specific instances of alleged mismanagement by Christie that got the transition off to a slow start. The two staffers said Christie did alarmingly little work on the transition and was largely absent from the campaign during the weeks leading up to the election, when Trump was widely expected to lose. According to one account, campaign staffers had been so accustomed to Christie’s absence that they were surprised to see him appear at campaign headquarters in Trump Tower — on Election Day.
“Where was Christie? Where was he? He certainly wasn’t planning the transition. We [didn’t] have nearly as much planning as we should have,” one of the staffers said.
On election night, the high-level source and the two staffers said many members of Trump’s team did not know where they were supposed to go the next morning. The high-level campaign source described this as one of many examples of a lack of transition planning from Christie.
“There wasn’t any coordination,” the source said. “There were just like a lot of things where people were like, ‘Oh yeah, we never really called about that or we never took care of this.’ There’s a lot of basic, basic things that now are getting discovered where it’s just like how did that never get done?”
The second source close to Christie said it was “completely not the case” that the governor was not actively working on the transition team. They claimed Christie had “weekly meetings” in Washington with transition staff and “outside parties,” transitions meetings on an “almost weekly basis” with team members in New Jersey, and “almost weekly” meetings with senior campaign leadership at Trump Tower in New York City. The Christie source said the governor was working on the transition on a “daily basis during the entire period from May when he was tapped until last week.”
And a third Christie ally said that if there was any confusion, it was because the Trump campaign had not “focused” on transition plans since they “didn’t think they were going to win.” The Christie ally also said “Trump didn’t participate” in transition planning prior to his upset victory.
“Nobody focused on it. I don’t know what campaign people would have any knowledge of it because, up until Election Day, the campaign didn’t have any interaction with the transition because … they were busy doing the campaign and they didn’t think they were going to win,” the Christie ally said, adding, “Trump has said he didn’t want anything to do with the transition because he’s superstitious.”
But the Trump advisers also presented specific examples of the transition process that the president-elect was dissatisfied with. As one, the high-level source said Trump and Kushner were surprised to learn how many positions they would have to fill in the White House, when they visited Washington, D.C., on Nov. 10. The source said Trump was regularly dismayed when he would inquire about aspects of the transition and Christie and his team would respond with “I don’t know” or “this didn’t happen yet.”
When Christie did try to fill key roles, the high-level source said Trump and his top aides were not satisfied with the people the governor and his team found for the jobs. Specifically, the source said Trump and his key advisers were upset to find that Christie suggested many lobbyists for administration roles. As Trump went over lists of potential administration and transition team staffers provided by Christie and his team, the high-level source said he would inquire about their backgrounds and repeatedly found they were lobbyists.
“The number of lobbyists appalled the s*** out of him,” the campaign source said of Trump.
In addition to the high-level Trump source, two separate Trump campaign sources confirmed this account.
The source close to Christie admitted the governor did have some lobbyists on the transition team that was doing “pre-election” work. However, they said this was “approved” by Trump’s campaign staff and that there were no lobbyists on the teams who would be working on the transition after the election. The Christie ally showed Yahoo News Powerpoint briefings that were given to pre-election transition staffers where they were informed that, after the race was over, no registered lobbyists would be allowed to work on the transition.
“The pre-election team did have among it some registered lobbyists and everyone on the pre-election teams was approved by the campaign,” said the Christie source.
The Christie source also said that, under the governor’s leadership, the transition team did everything it set out to do prior to the election.
“We did what we planned to do, which was install the pre-election deliverables and hand them off to the team,” the Christie source said.
They said these “deliverables” included “vetting of hundreds” of job candidates, “agency backgrounders and briefings,” “policy implementation memos,” and “transition memos” with operational instructions for what the team would do after a victory.
But Trump did not have teams set up for liaison with key government agencies until more than a week after his election. This lack of official interaction has been a source of bad headlines and criticism for Trump’s nascent administration. On a press conference call Thursday morning, Republican National Committee chief strategist Sean Spicer, who has been advising Trump, said the transition team is finally beginning to roll out those “landing teams.”
“Today, the landing teams are being launched,” he said.
Members of the national security landing team, which is assigned to meet with Obama administration officials at the Pentagon and National Security Council, were announced on Friday. Trump’s team has said it will announce a landing team that will focus on economic issues on Monday, and that will be followed by a team dedicated to domestic affairs.
The Christie ally noted that landing teams are not allowed to contact government agencies until after a winner is declared in the election. They blamed any delay in announcing the teams on the campaign having not planned for a win. The Christie ally further suggested any Trump campaign staffer blaming the governor for delays in the transition was simply “trying to make themselves look good” after they got the postelection phase off to a slow start.
According to the high-level Trump campaign source, the president-elect made the decision to demote Christie to vice chair and install Vice President-elect Mike Pence on Nov. 11. The move was announced on the same day. And the high level source said Trump is confident in Pence’s ability to get the transition back on track, particularly given his experience as a congressman who spent over a decade on Capitol Hill.
“Pence is an executor that knows Washington and knows how to get things done,” the source said.
Last Tuesday, four days after Christie’s demotion was announced, two officials who had been working on national security issues for the transition team, Rep. Mike Rogers, R-Mich., and lobbyist Matthew Freedman, were fired. Rogers declined to comment on whether Trump was unhappy with the transition team’s initial efforts.
“I have no comment on that,” Rogers said. “I really don’t know anything about that.”
Freedman also declined to discuss his work on the transition team.
“I’m not prepared to speak with you, but thanks for calling,” said Freedman.
However, two of the sources close to Christie noted some staffers brought on to the transition team by the governor still remain in their roles. As an example, the Christie ally cited Bill Haggerty, who is helping Trump identify potential Cabinet appointments.
“Anybody saying Trump was expressing dissatisfaction with the governor is ridiculous, particularly on the appointment stuff,” the Christie ally said. “Bill Hagerty, who did the presidential appointments stuff for Romney, did it for us and is still there doing all the same work.”
News of the firing of Rogers and Freedman was immediately followed by a slew of reports that the action was part of a “purge” of aides loyal to Christie that was orchestrated by Kushner because of a longstanding grudge. (In 2004, Christie prosecuted Kushner’s father for tax evasion, illegal campaign contributions, and witness tampering.) However, the high-level campaign source who talked to Yahoo News suggested the rumors about Kushner engaging in a “vendetta” against Christie were “completely false.”
“The idea that, at this kind of time, that Jared would do something to try to settle personal scores above what was in Mr. Trump’s best interest is somewhat ridiculous,” the high-level source said. “Trump just wouldn’t put up with that, and Jared knows that 100 percent.”
The source also indicated that Kushner and Christie worked well together prior to the campaign. Kushner runs his family’s real estate company, which has multiple large projects in New Jersey. The two other campaign sources also said Christie’s demotion did not come at Kushner’s behest.
“Jared and Gov. Christie have had a fine working relationship for several years,” the high-level source said.
This was the one point where the Trump campaign source and Christie’s ally agreed.
Trump’s campaign was characterized by infighting and by aides whose stock rose and fell rapidly. Christie’s demotion is likely a result of that chaotic process. And although Christie has been kept on as a vice chairman of the transition team, it remains unclear whether he’ll get a role in the administration. Despite Trump’s dissatisfaction with Christie’s initial leadership of the transition process, the governor had a private meeting with the president-elect on Sunday at Trump’s golf course in Bedminster, N.J.
According to press pool reports, reporters assembled outside of the meeting asked Trump if Christie would have a place in his administration.
“He’s a very talented man,” said Trump of Christie.
The president-elect also called Christie “smart” and “tough.” He punched the air with his fist to emphasize this last point. Following the meeting, Christie told the reporters that the meeting went “great.” Trump offered a similar assessment of the discussion.
“Very well,” Trump said. “Very good.”