Three years ago this week, on February 9th, 2016, Donald Trump won the New Hampshire primary in a landslide.
There were immediate whispers about which “normal” GOP candidate would be craven enough to drop out and legitimize Trump’s candidacy with an endorsement.
In the hands of a skilled memoirist, or even one with a half-percent more self-awareness, this could have been brilliant career-reviving satire, a political Leslie Nielsen act: I Sold My Soul to Donald Trump, and All I Got Was This Lousy Book Deal.
But Christie — who releases his book amid “news” he “won’t rule out” a presidential run in 2024 — can’t give up the dream of being taken seriously. So Let Me Finish ends up being a furious allegory about the perils of not being as smart as you think you are.
Christie was once an insider favorite to succeed Barack Obama as president. He was the Beltway’s idea of a “crossover” political star, i.e. mean enough to parallel park over a homeless person, but maybe able to name three good movies.
Magazines like Time (whose “Elephant In the Room” cover was one of several Christie features) test-marketed “The Boss” as a national leading man. By 2012-2013, pundits were praising him as a “straight shooter” who would make “tough choices” (read: cut services to keep billionaire tax rates low).
He was probably headed to the White House — until his staff was caught intentionally causing traffic jams on the George Washington bridge. This was reported to be an effort to punish Fort Lee mayor Mark Sokolich for not supporting Christie in the 2013 gubernatorial election. “Bridgegate” instantly changed Christie’s rep, from an asshole with a future to just an asshole.
The first half of Let Me Finish shows Christie boasting about what a mean, uncompromising, double-dealing negotiator he is. He spends the second part, about Trump, complaining about being the victim of such a person.
As class president at Livingston High School, Christie supposedly outfoxed principal Al Berlin into letting the seniors continue a tradition of vandalizing the school roof with spray paint, letting him know they’d keep painting even if Berlin put “armed guards” on the roof. Moral of story: Christie is a rebel who gets what he wants.
In another story, meant to communicate the humanizing information that Christie enjoys sports, he describes refusing new wife Mary Pat’s request that he not watch the Mets while eating dinner she’s cooked. Christie tells her Dwight Gooden is pitching and he’s going to watch the game.
The man who knows most of America has seen this picture explains: “Until we got married, Mary Pat didn’t fully grasp how mammoth a baseball fan I was.”
Chris Christie doesn’t give an inch, not even for his wife. Political donors, however, are another thing.
When he first meets Trump socially in 2002 at the Jean-Georges restaurant at Trump Tower, Trump hilariously orders a complex meal for Christie, then U.S. Attorney of New Jersey:
Seared scallops and cauliflower with caper-raisin sauce as my appetizer… and roasted lamb loin for my entrée…
Christie is allergic to scallops and has “always hated lamb.” (It would be interesting to find out if Trump knew this in advance. I’d guess yes.) Inwardly, the prosecutor seethed:
Who does he think I am, ordering for me like that? One of his chicks?
Outwardly, what does Christie say? Nothing, adding, “I was just grateful the Jean-Georges portions weren’t too large.”
So Christie will not turn off a baseball game to eat his wife’s cooking, but he will eat shellfish he’s allergic to when served by a billionaire.
This narrative repeats itself after the 2016 New Hampshire primary, where Christie pinned his electoral hopes:
Our plan was to spend enough time in Iowa so no one could say I had skipped it but to devote most of our resources to famously independent-minded New Hampshire.
I’m sure the other reporters who covered Christie in Iowa (I only did one of his events there, thank God) are pleased to learn they helped him pretend to campaign in that state that year. The strategy failed and Christie finished sixth in New Hampshire.
When Trump cruised to victory in South Carolina 11 days later, Christie’s onetime finance chair, Hewlett Packard CEO Meg Whitman, was almost too upset to speak. Not Christie, who was planning his next negotiating ploy: the swift, proactive surrender of his credibility. Who would see it coming? He recounts:
“I don’t want to believe it’s over,” Meg said. “We’ve got to figure out who to get behind.”
“Meg,” I repeated. “It’s a folly. The voters have spoken. No one else is going to beat this guy.”
Christie next starts rationalizing his coming decision to Mary Pat: “We can sit on the sidelines… Or we can be with the guy we know is going to win.”
The Trumps and Christies for years had frequent “couples’ dinners” at places like the 21 Club. This relationship dated back to when Christie was chief federal law enforcement officer for New Jersey, and Trump merely an infamously shady Atlantic City casino owner en route to being party to at least 3,500 litigations.
Christie gives the flavor of these dinners, explaining Melania used to touch Trump’s forearm whenever she wanted to signal it was time to “let others get in a word.” Mary Pat’s real feelings about Trump shine through in Let Me Finish, even though Christie just describes her as being “exhausted” by these often “overwhelming” two-hour Trump-a-thons.
But Mary Pat relented in the end, and Christie announced his endorsement of Trump, becoming the first “mainstream” politician to do so (unless Sarah Palin counts). As Christie notes, Trump’s biggest backers at the time “included Kid Rock, Ted Nugent, Jesse Ventura, Jerry Falwell Jr. …”
He endorsed despite the fact that Christie was one of Trump’s favorite trail targets. Trump even did improv recreations of Christie’s alleged meetings with Bridgegate conspirators: “Hey, uh, boss, we’re closing the George Washington Bridge tonight?” he’d say, adding, “I think they had breakfast like, every day.”
Christie claimed to be furious at Trump’s rants because “you don’t do that to a friend.” But he endorsed Trump anyway.
Why? Let Me Finish suggests it was partly to piss off John Kasich. The Ohio governor was feeling swaggy after mustering 15 whole points in a second place showing in New Hampshire, calling Christie to rub it in.
“You know what happened to you, don’t you, Chris?” Kasich tells him. “God wanted you to play right field, and you insisted on playing shortstop… And [in New Hampshire], you went out to shortstop, and the ball went through your legs…”
This scene captures the dynamic of the 2016 GOP primary. The clown car passengers spent a year backbiting over who’d be the “real” candidate, splitting the shallow-end vote just long enough to make Trump’s 25%-35% plurality look like a juggernaut.
Christie seems to have been the first in the race to realize Trump really could win. But he took until after New Hampshire to grasp this, and his first post-Eureka move was to jump in Trump’s lap.
Just a few sentences after telling us “my support wasn’t conditioned on anything,” Christie describes sitting across from Trump explaining the terms of his endorsement. “There are only two jobs I’m interested in,” he writes that he said. “Vice President or Attorney General. Other than that, I’m not really interested in anything.”
This was around the time Christie was enduring a joint appearance with Trump on Super Tuesday, when much of Twitter speculated the Jersey governor was being held hostage and blinking for help in Morse code.
In Let Me Finish, we learn Christie soldiered on, then expecting to be repaid with a high-level appointment. But the reader sees a mile away that Trump will screw Christie in the end. Christie not only didn’t get the Veep job (went to Mike Pence) or the Attorney General job (Jeff Sessions), he ended up with nothing. Worse, after each screwing, Trump kept making Christie beg for his next plate of scallops.
During the “veepstakes,” for instance, Trump calls Christie from Indiana on a night in which he had Pence introduce him at an event. To you and me, a big hint, but not to Christie, who is thrilled when Trump asks, “Are you ready?”
Christie asks: Ready for what?
“You know what,” Trump reportedly replies.
Christie here is reduced to asking Trump if he’s proposing. “Are you asking?” he says.
Trump says no and changes the subject. He then tells Christie he’s making his decision tomorrow. The reader sees Trump is pulling the old “How do you keep an idiot in suspense? I’ll tell you tomorrow” joke. But Christie recalls the scene with fondness:
As I got off the phone with Donald, the vice presidency didn’t feel like an exercise anymore or some theoretical possibility. It felt real. It felt likely…
Of course, it was neither real nor likely. There were a million reasons: Bridgegate was a repugnant political embarrassment even by Trumpian standards, Christie once prosecuted Jared Kushner’s Dad Charlie, and Trump was apparently peeved Christie was raising money to staff up a transition team (packing it with Christie pals like former chief of staff Rich Bagger and former law partner Bill Palatucci) early in the race.
Christie doesn’t bother to explain why he didn’t get the Attorney General job. He does go on to tell an even more humiliating story.
Trump, he writes, called after Election Day and said, “Are you willing to be chairman of the RNC?” This was after both Kushner and Bannon had told him conservative mega-patron Rebekah Mercer supposedly wanted him for the job. Christie, for the millionth time, jumps at a Trump offer, explaining that he’d love to run the RNC, so long as the Republican Party changes a restriction preventing him from collecting his gubernatorial salary.
“I love the idea,” he claims Trump said. “Let me get back to you.”
Trump schedules a meeting at Trump Tower for 3:45 p.m the following Wednesday to seal the deal. Christie shows up, but is told Trump is “running late” and asked to wait until 4:30. When 4:30 comes, he’s told Trump is “tied up,” and would he speak to Reince Priebus instead?
Mouth still firmly on the hook, Christie meets with Priebus, who of course tells him there’s no RNC job because Trump gave it to someone else (Mitt Romney’s niece Ronna McDaniel). While Christie throws a fit, Priebus in rapid succession tells him Trump has authorized him to offer him other positions.
Did Christie want to be Secretary of Labor? No? How about the head of Homeland Security? No? Would he take an ambassadorship to Italy? No? How about Vatican City?
It’s only at this point that Christie realizes he’s been had, and he trudges upstairs to “say goodbye” to Trump. The latter of course pretends not to know what the problem is and asks Christie to “come back here tomorrow.”
There’s suspense as we wait to see if Christie will take the bait one more time, but he doesn’t. This is the end of the inside account of Trumpland.
Legendary tough guy and breaker-of-balls Chris Christie sold his soul to get the Vice Presidency, and ended up being offered a one-way plane ticket to Vatican City — probably the only real offer he ever got. Despite where it comes from, it’s hard not to see the humor in this.
Christie sold us all out three years ago, and now, in print, he’s doing it to himself. That doesn’t make up for anything, but it is good for a laugh or two — which all too often is the most politics has to offer these days.