President Trump’s closest, most trusted advisor didn’t serve in his administration, beyond temporarily volunteering to head a presidential commission on opioids in 2017 while his day job was still to serve as the Governor of New Jersey until 2018. Chris Christie was a long-time friend, early endorser, and head of the transition for the 45th president, but he was notably absent from the Trump administration.
Not much has been written about it beyond reporting of the bad blood between the former attorney general and the son of a convicted felon whose father was a prominent New Jersey Democratic Party fundraiser named Charles Kushner that Christie prosecuted. That bad blood led to the quiet removal from leading the transition soon after Trump was elected. In Let Me Finish, Christie opens his book with an account of that moment.
Steve Bannon was never big on small talk.
But on this particular Thursday morning, two days after Donald Trump shocked nearly everyone by getting himself elected president, Trump’s self-impressed “campaign CEO” was even more abrupt than usual.
“Sit down a sec,” Steve mumbled in that distinctive rasp of his, summoning me from a transition-team meeting and into his spartan glass office on Trump Tower’s fourteenth floor. Steve Bannon is the only person I have ever met who can look pretentious and like an unmade bed at the very same time. He motioned for me to shut the door and sit down.
“We’ve decided to make a change,” he said, getting right to the point.
“Good,” I answered. “What are we changing?”
His response came in a single word.
“The vice president is going to be the new chairman of the transition,” Steve went on, “and you’re out. Going forward, you have no position of any kind in the transition, and we do not want you to be in the building anymore.”
I wasn’t only being fired. I was being eliminated. Vaporized.
I’d been close to the president-elect for the past fourteen years, longer than anyone else in the inner circle who wasn’t related by marriage or blood. I’d been the first governor in the nation to endorse him—the first major elected official of any sort. I’d just spent the past nine months campaigning with and for him. Since May, I had been chairman of his transition team, a huge responsibility he had asked me to take on, designing an entire federal government in his image and likeness.
Was this really how it was all going to end?
I could feel my heart pounding as Steve barreled on, laying out my future as he imagined it. I had to call on all my experience as a US Attorney and governor just to hold my anger in. It was crucial to keep my cool. No way was I letting Steve Bannon see how devastating this development felt to me.
“Whose decision is this?” I asked him.
“It doesn’t really matter,” Steve deflected.
As far as I was concerned, that wasn’t remotely good enough. “I want to know whose decision it is,” I repeated. “Did the president-elect make this decision?”
“It’s really of no consequence, Governor,” Steve insisted. “The decision is made. There is no changing it. We expect you to comply.”
I’d been dealing with Steve periodically since August, when he left Breitbart News, at least officially, and moved into Trump Tower as chief executive of the Trump campaign. We’d worked together on debate prep. He’d gotten involved in some transition stuff. We’d talked strategy quite a few times. Gruff, bright, and never lacking faith in his own brilliance, Steve saw himself not as a political operative or a campaign adviser but as a high-level executive. From everything I had witnessed, he had one overriding goal: ingratiating himself with the Trump family. Everything else was secondary. For months, Steve had been telling the candidate he had a 100-percent chance of victory—then saying something far less optimistic behind his back. But now that the votes had all been counted and the impossible had occurred, Steve seemed certain that, come January 20, 2017, he’d be moving into the West Wing of the White House as the new president’s chief of staff.
I stared at Steve across his desk. So this was how he wanted to play it? Like I was an errant child who deserved no explanation as I was bounced out the door? Steve knew and I knew—and certainly Donald knew—that I’d been one of the very few grown-ups on this wild ride of a campaign. The president-elect and I had an excellent relationship. And now I was being banished—no warning and no fingerprints—just when the time came to execute our carefully crafted, thirty-volume transition plan. Was this where my friendship with the soon-to-be-president was going to crash and burn? I was about to find out.
“Okay, that’s fine,” I told Steve as I stood to leave.
“By the way,” I added, “just so you know. Since you won’t tell me anything, I’m going to have to assume it was your decision. You are the one conveying it. Now I’m going to go downstairs to that scrum of reporters in the lobby and tell them I was just fired by Steve Bannon. That it was Steve Bannon’s decision and Steve Bannon’s alone. And that’s not all I’ll say. You can count on the fact that I’ll have a lot to say. Then you can deal with all the incoming and explain everything yourself. Good to see you.”
The reporters in the lobby would eat this stuff up. I was certain of that. If there was anything I’d learned from two decades in New Jersey politics and as a federal prosecutor, it’s that reporters like nothing more than a life-or-death feud. Two minutes from now, Steve’s cell phone was going to explode.
Suddenly, Steve changed his tune. “No, no, no,” I heard him say, not quite as unequivocally as before. “Wait a second. You can’t walk out and do that.”
“Oh yeah, I can,” I told him. “I’m no longer associated with this place. I’m not allowed in the building. You made your decision. Now I am making mine.”
“Governor,” Steve pleaded. “Sit down, and let’s talk about it.”
“What do we have to talk about?” I asked, glancing at the open door. “I should leave.”
I knew this couldn’t be Donald’s idea. He and I had been there for each other, time and again. He said to me as far back as Labor Day: “Chris, you and I are so smart, and we’ve known each other for so long, we could do the whole transition together if we just leave the victory party two hours early!” I loved the self-confidence and appreciated the compliment, but, “No,” I’d told him, “we need to do this right.” Now that the election was over and victory was ours, I was even more grateful that I’d talked him down from his just-wing-it approach. It made no sense for Donald Trump, who had never held public office, to sever his relationship with one of the few people around him who’d actually run an executive branch of government. How did that serve him? Of course it didn’t. And now the momentum in Steve Bannon’s office seemed to be shifting my way.
“No, no,” Steve said. “I want to talk to you about this.”
“Well, I want to know who fired me, because I know it wasn’t you,” I said. “You’re just here as the executioner. Who fired me? The president-elect? Because, Steve, if you don’t tell me who it is, I am going to say it was you.”
That, right there, is where Steve Bannon blinked.
It wasn’t the President. It was the President’s son-in-law, thus the subtitle of Christie’s book Trump, the Kushners, Bannon, New Jersey, and the Power of In-Your-Face Politics. Keep in mind this is Christie’s account. So we should expect a bias toward his side of the story. I look forward to reading Bannon and Kushner’s books as well. These first-hand accounts contain great historical information but have to be balanced against each other.
After negotiating with Bannon, Christie stayed on the transition team as an out-of-the-loop vice-chair. There was no dramatic press conference, no public spat. The president-elect even offered Christie a cabinet office, but it wasn’t the one the New Jersey governor was willing to accept. Early during the campaign, Trump asked Christie what job he’d like in a Trump administration. Christie said he’d accept only two: Vice President or Attorney General. Trump offered him something else.
On his way to his new job as Donald Trump’s labor secretary, Andy Puzder was getting it from all sides. And Donald was reaching back to me.
The former chief executive of the Hardee’s and Carl’s Jr. fast-food chains, Puzder was being accused by Democrats of mistreating his workers, opposing the minimum wage, and promoting heartless workplace automation. At the same time, some conservatives were knocking him for employing an undocumented immigrant as a housekeeper. Even worse, a videotape had surfaced of his ex-wife on The Oprah Winfrey Show in 1990 saying he’d threatened her—“I will see you in the gutter.… You will pay for this”—after she publicly accused him of spousal abuse.
With all that swirling around, Puzder’s confirmation hearing kept being delayed by the Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee. Unable to extract himself from this particular version of Washington hell, he finally faced the inevitable and withdrew his name.
I was in the kitchen at home eating dinner with Mary Pat, Patrick, and Bridget when Donald called. “Have you been reading this Puzder stuff?” he asked.
I told him I had.
“It’s a shame, because he’s a nice guy,” Donald said. “Who would have known? I’m calling because I want you to take labor secretary. Get down here. Get around the table. I know you want one of the big jobs, and you’re entitled to that. You’re smart enough for it. People have those jobs right now, but they won’t have them forever. You gotta come down here and get at the table so that when one of those big jobs comes open, you’re sitting there and you’re ready to go.”
“No thank you,” I said.
Hadn’t we been down this road before?
“Why not?” he pressed.
“Three reasons,” I told him. “Reason number one is I have no interest in being labor secretary. I’d be bored to death. Reason number two is that I’d have to leave home. Mary Pat is not coming with me—the kids, either. They’re not leaving high school to move to Washington. So I’d have to become a weekend father, and the job would have to be more interesting to me than labor secretary for me to do that. And number three is because of all of the arguments I had with the public-sector unions in New Jersey. This would be a really hellacious confirmation hearing. How do you expect me to trust your staff to have my back during that when they’re the very same people who fired me as transition chairman?”
Up until that moment, Donald Trump and I had never spoken once about my being fired from the transition. He never talked to me about it. I never brought it up to him. I never said how unfair I believed it was, how I thought the decision poorly served him. I knew where it came from, and I wasn’t going to bother him with complaints about a decision that had already been made.
But I bristled at what he said to me next on the phone: “Chris, you didn’t get fired. You got made part of a larger team.”
That wasn’t what happened.
“Mr. President,” I said, “I’ve never, ever brought up my leaving the transition chairmanship, because you were the president-elect of the United States and you had much bigger fish to fry. And I’m a big boy who understands the way this business works. But please, sir, don’t ever, ever, tell me again that I wasn’t fired.”
From the immediate change in his tone, I could tell he wasn’t about to argue the point. “Okay,” he said, trying one, last time. “How about labor secretary?”
“I’m not going to do it, sir. I really appreciate the offer. I’m honored. But it’s not for me.”
“I figured I’d give it a try,” he said. “You’re my first choice.”
It was very flattering. I felt like I could say exactly what I was thinking. The same as I did in television interviews. The same as I did when I spoke with people on the White House staff. Donald didn’t always enjoy my answers. I am certain of that. But I do believe he liked that I gave them.
This result has ultimately put Christie in a good place to be one of the few people to be offered a third shot at the Oval Office. He avoided whatever would have besmirched his reputation serving in the Trump administration, and yet Christie has never had a public falling out with Trump. For four years on the outside, Christie has been an effective surrogate for Trump but remained a candid enough person to avoid saying ridiculous things in Trump’s defense. Christie could conceivably be a unifying nominee for the GOP in 2024, if Trump doesn’t run.
Eric Shierman lives in Salem and is the author of We were winning when I was there.