Two Republicans are finding second lives in the upside-down world that Donald Trump created with a post-presidency as tumultuous as his tenure in office. The first is Chris Christie, the Trump apologist turned boisterous critic. The former New Jersey governor was the first Trump challenger for the 2016 presidential nomination to endorse his Queens-bred rival. He was on the shortlist to be vice president even though he had, as U.S. attorney, prosecuted and convicted Jared Kushner’s father over a crazy extortion scheme that involved dispatching a hooker to seduce Jared’s uncle. Typically, such things might be hard to overcome, but Christie and Trump called them bygones. Even when the reality-TV star chose Mike Pence as his veep in 2016 and, to add to the humiliation, dumped Christie for Pence as his transition chief, the former varsity baseball player from Livingston, New Jersey, sucked it up and kept backing Donald.
But the pretense of affection waned between Trump’s giving him a case of COVID that put Christie in intensive care for seven days in 2020 and the insurrection of January 6, 2021. Now, Christie wants to topple his former ally and, perhaps, refurbish his image, making sure the first line of his obituary doesn’t include “Trump Supporter.”
He’s deftly showing the whimpering field of 2024 Republican wannabes that you can strip the golf clothes off the emperor, live, and have fun doing it. Since Christie announced, Ron DeSantis, the Florida governor who, if you have not heard, does not like woke, loses support every week, registering 25 percent to Trump’s nearly 50.
The other shapeshifter in the Trump post-presidency is Representative Marjorie Taylor Greene, occupying the space in a Venn diagram where MAGA cranks and the relics of the Republican establishment overlap. With her three-initial status, MTG was once an outlaw, famously blaming Jewish Space Lasers for California wildfires and being stripped of her committee assignments. (The once-QAnon spouting pol hasn’t pinned this summer’s Canadian fires on George Soros; maybe she’ll nail the “gazpacho” police). Ever since she did much to put Kevin McCarthy in the Speaker’s chair this winter after 14 nail-biting ballots, she’s enjoyed the good life on the inside. Much to my surprise and the surprise of others, she’s gone from fireplug pyromaniac to teacher’s pet.
As Greene sucks up to power, Christie is on a kamikaze mission to take out the biggest ship in the Republican fleet, knowing he’s unlikely to sink the USS Trump. Sure, Christie enjoys the media love that Liz Cheney once basked in, but he’s still on a lonely mission that won’t end with his being the nominee. The former governor uses the superpowers he employed to become a two-term governor and helped Trump win in 2016 and 2020 to deprive him of an encore. He employs the right hook and left uppercut of a prizefighter, the instincts of a prosecutor, and the zeal of a convert who found religion in the residue of the assault on the Capitol. This week, when the ex-Commander-in-Thief was caught on tape admitting to flaunting stolen classified documents in front of witnesses, Christie explained that it’s Trump being “stupid and childish” and a “show off,” who purloined papers to “act like he’s president” because “he can’t live with the fact that he’s not.” He took after the grifting Trump family in another appearance, reprising his old prosecution that Trump undid with a pardon. “What was Jared Kushner doing in the Middle East,” Christie asked when he wasn’t secretary of state. Answering his question, Christie said that Trump “put him there to make those relationships and then cash in” for $2 billion from the Saudis six months after he left the White House.
In a June CNN town hall, he labeled Trump, among other things, “angry,” “vengeful,” and “completely self-centered, completely self-consumed.” He cares only about himself and “doesn’t give a damn about the American people.”
Aside from putting a diagnosis to Trump’s pathologies, Christie is a barometer of the possible. He’s no longer another Trump supplicant willing to endure any humiliation. (Recall the 2016 hot mic incident where he told Christie on the tarmac to go home.) Since announcing, the 60-year-old has shown that the cult is crackable; he’s a Leah Remini for the GOP. That’s no small achievement in a party that flinches when Trump frowns, grows more devoted when he’s indicted, and cheers when he defames the woman he was just convicted of defaming. Christie’s shown that 5 percent of Republicans are willing to tell a pollster that they’re ready to break with their Orange Guru. Nikki Haley, DeSantis, Tim Scott, and others have acted like Trump’s indictment for stealing the nuclear secrets and stashing them in his bathroom was no big deal, and they may be rewarded for their cowardice. It’s unlikely that Christie’s determination to slug the biggest guy in the prison yard will inspire them to do the same.
Elected in 2020, Greene is not interested in saving the republic from Trump. She’s behind him for 2024 like so many House Republicans, including much of the Florida delegation that is rebuffing their own DeSantis. With a penchant for performing in fitness videos like a regular RFK Jr., the Georgian is interested in saving herself from being a backbencher. The possibility of being Trump’s running mate seems plausible. Greene lacks the polish of failed gubernatorial candidate for TV news anchor Kari Lake of Arizona, who is auditioning for the spot. But unlike Lake, she has a job.
Greene’s is a familiar Washington story, a riff on the old saying, “They came to do good and stayed to do well.” Greene arrived as a merciless outlier and ended up a cozy insider. She got a whiff of what that would be like on the Speaker’s balcony during McCarthy’s race when she broke with her Freedom Caucus posse to support him. Rather than hold McCarthy to the facile promises he made to win or threaten to undo him five times a week as I thought she might, Greene loves being in the room where it happens. She’s still a pugilist but now mainly with her colleagues, engaging in a public, expletive-laced brawl with Representative Lauren Boebert last week. The latest round in a prize fight started when Boebert, the raven-haired Joan Collins to Greene’s highlighted Linda Evans, refused to support McCarthy. Now Greene accuses Boebert of copying her homework: Boebert’s articles of impeachment against President Biden are way too similar to her earlier articles of impeachment against President Biden.
The Freedom Caucus took an internal vote last week on what to do about a rogue Greene siding against them. According to Axios, the vote reflected “support to kick her out.” But Greene is unfazed. There are only 31 members of that caucus and 222 in McCarthy’s, and the smart money is on Suzy Space Laser becoming stronger should her erstwhile allies martyr her. She’s the one with the plum committee assignments where she goes hard on Hunter Biden and soft on Vladimir Putin. Her strength is more remarkable, given that McCarthy didn’t have to stick with her after his ascension but did. Give him credit. He got through the debt ceiling mess, his speakership intact.
With his quixotic run, Christie has left behind the years when he lusted to be Trump’s veep and, failing that, begged for the consolation prize of Attorney General, and failing, settled for playing a Trump apologist on ABC. He’s got a lot to answer for, but there are “second acts” in politics, as Richard Nixon demonstrated. Christie is running the best campaign by far by harking back to the future when he wore the white hat of a U.S. Attorney, putting the bad guys, like Kushner’s father, away. He’s reprising that role by going after the baddest guy with gusto. Christie’s Essex County, New Jersey, bravado can match the Donald’s Manhattan-Queens combo for sheer chutzpah.
But Nixon’s resurrection in 1968 had a tragic ending, and so will Christie’s. Barring a miracle, he will gravely wound the bad guy but not take his place. Christie may still redeem himself as the dragon slayer who stepped up when no one else running would and kept Trump from returning to the Oval Office. That’s not enough to secure the nomination, not in the GOP that Trump has remade, but it is enough to enjoy the frisson of the respectable sorts liking you again. (Ask Bill Barr.) This crusade will change the lead of his obituary, which hopefully won’t be written for decades. Seeing the white light in the ICU that Trump put him in, and fighting back, may be reward enough.
Author: Margaret Carlson