Frank Bruni is a contributing Opinion writer who was on the staff of The Times for more than 25 years. He wrote a June 21st opinion about Chris Christie’s recent remarks during his CNN Town Hall appearance. Mr. Bruni found Christie’s remarks as refreshing and as necessary as I did, in watching this appearance.
I had also just completed reading Margaret Haberman’s book on Donald J. Trump. Haberman, the New York Times writer assigned to cover Trump over decades, interviewed hundreds of personal friends of DJT and related that Christie was very definitely trying to snag the VP nomination for himself during 2016.
Most of us who watched Mr. Christie during his Sunday morning talk show appearances know that he was the politician tapped to “prep” Donald J. Trump for debates during his run, although DJT was not a willing student at all times. One of the more startling facts that Haberman rehashed was how Trump, himself, kept Christie wondering about who would ultimately be his running mate. The three finalists were said to be Pence, Christie and Newt Gingrich. Trump called up the Indiana Senator and told him to fly out for the announcement, and Christie got wind of the Pence family’s arrival in Teterboro, N.J. It was not a happy conversation when Christie realized that Trump had been jacking him around for literally months, I’m sure.
Here’s what Frank Bruni had to say: “Chris Christie made a complete fool of himself back in 2016, fan-dancing obsequiously around Donald Trump, angling for a crucial role in his administration, nattering on about their friendship, pretending or possibly even convincing himself that Trump could restrain his ego, check his nastiness, suspend his grift and, well, serve America. But then Christie, a former two-term governor of New Jersey, had plenty of company. And he never did style himself as a saint.
It’s all water under the George Washington Bridge now. The Chris Christie of the current moment is magnificent. I don’t mean magnificent as in, “He’s going to win the Republican presidential nomination.” I don’t mean I am rooting for a Christie presidency and regard him as the country’s possible saviour.
But what he’s doing in this Republican primary contest is very, very important. It also couldn’t be more emotionally gratifying to behold. He’s telling the unvarnished truth about Trump, and he’s the only candidate doing that. A former prosecutor, he’s artfully, aggressively and comprehensively making the case against Trump, knocking down all the rationalizations Trump has mustered and all the diversions he has contrived since his 37-count federal indictment.”
In a poll released on Friday by The New Hampshire Journal, Christie had pulled into third place among Republicans in the state, far behind Trump, who had 47 percent of the vote, but not far behind Ron DeSantis, who had just 13. Christie had 9, followed by Mike Pence with 5. That partly reflects Christie’s decision to make his initial stand, so to speak, in New Hampshire. But it also reflects something else: He’s excellent at this.
Christie is to DeSantis what a Roman candle is to a scented votive. He explodes in a riot of color. DeSantis, on his best days, flickers.”
I would like to add that Christie’s performance on that CNN Town Hall, was, indeed, more like a Roman candle than the halting delivery of second place runner Ron DeSantis. I found his one-on-one answers to members of the audience to be spot-on, even when one asked about the infamous Bridgegate controversy that ended his time in New Jersey politics.
My enchantment with Christie’s fireworks makes me a cliché. In an observant and witty analysis in The Atlantic on Monday with the headline “Chris Christie, Liberal Hero,” David Graham inventoried the adoring media coverage Christie has garnered, noting that while there’s zero evidence that Christie could actually win the contest he has entered, “pundits are swooning.” It should be noted here that hard-core GOP voters were less thrilled with Christie’s sudden emergence as one of the few Republicans to let the truth prevail. Many of the most faithful Republicans—up to 70% in one poll—said they would not vote for him.
But the swoon isn’t about Christie’s prospects. It’s about the hugely valuable contrast to other Republican presidential candidates that he’s providing. And about this: The health of American democracy hinges on a reckoning within the Republican Party, and that won’t come from Democrats saying the kinds of things that Christie is now saying. They’ve been doing that for years. It’ll come — if it even can — from the words and warnings of longtime Republicans who know how to get and use the spotlight.
Did you see Christie’s CNN town hall last week? Have you watched or listened to any of his interviews? He’s funny. He’s lively. He’s crisp. And he’s right. Over the past few weeks, he has described Trump’s behavior as “vanity run amok.” Trump himself is “a petulant child.”
At the town hall: “He is voluntarily putting our country through this. If at any point before the search in August of ’22 he had just done what anyone, I suspect, in this audience would have done, which is: said, ‘All right, you’re serious? You’re serving a grand jury subpoena? Let me just give the documents back,’ he wouldn’t have been charged. Wouldn’t have been charged with anything, even though he had kept them for almost a year and a half.”
Other candidates, who prefer not to talk about the charges against Trump, are reportedly worried that his indictment will mean ceaseless chatter about him and extra difficulty promoting their own (muted and muddled) messages. Josh Barro, in his Substack newsletter Very Serious, nailed the absurdity of that, pointing out that Trump’s front-runner status and enormous lead over all of them guarantee that he’ll always monopolize the conversation, indictment or no indictment.
“The Republican nomination campaign cannot — and will not — be about anything but Donald Trump, and the media is not going to invite them on TV to talk about topics other than Donald Trump,” Barro wrote. “So, since they are going to talk about Donald Trump all the time, they had better talk about why he should not be nominated.” Christie is getting invitations and attention because he is doing precisely that. Maybe, just maybe, some of them will take note and wise up.
To the conundrum of what, if Christie qualifies for the Republican primary debates, he’ll do about the required pledge that he support whoever winds up getting the party’s nomination, he has apparently found a solution that’s suited to Republicans’ willful and nihilistic captivity to Trump, the stupidity of the pledge and the stakes of the race: He’ll sign what he must and later act as he pleases.
“I will do what I need to do to be up on that stage to try to save my party and save my democracy,” he told Jake Tapper on CNN’s “State of the Union” on Sunday morning.
Let’s pivot from Trump and Trump analogues to Trump sycophants. In The Atlantic, Tom Nichols described how J.D. Vance, who once spoke with such disparaging and devastating accuracy about Trump, did a self-serving about-face in his 2022 Senate race in Ohio and, reprogrammed by that victory, never looked back: “What he once wore as electoral camouflage is now tattooed all over him, in yet another fulfillment of the late Kurt Vonnegut’s warning that, eventually, ‘we are what we pretend to be.’”
Chris Christie, superhero? He has his own supersize vanity. He is arguably playing the only part in the crowded primary field available to him. And those dynamics may have as much to do with his assault on Trump as moral indignation does. Even so, saving his party and country agrees with him.
DeSantis, Pence, Tim Scott, Nikki Haley and other Republican presidential candidates are clearly telling themselves that they can’t do any good down the road if at this intersection they provoke Trump and run afoul of his supporters.
Where have we heard that before? It’s a version of what Christie said to himself in 2016. He now sees the folly of that fable.