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Two Views of a Single Presidency

David Frum
 

The people who serve in the Trump administration have never been reticent about telling their stories.

They have, however, mostly declined to put their names to their tales.

That preference for anonymity has begun to end. On the same day—January 29—Chris Christie, the former governor of New Jersey and Trump ally, released a memoir of his political career, Let Me Finish, and the former Trump communications aide Cliff Sims published an account of his service in the Trump White House, Team of Vipers.

Each book offered up some news-making stories. Sims confirms in excruciating detail the bizarre story of Sean Spicer personally stealing a drink mini-fridge from his own staff. The story was reported in The Wall Street Journal the day Spicer resigned, and was ferociously denied by Spicer at the time and in his own memoir—but after Sims’s account, nobody will doubt that the Journal’s report was true in every shabby detail.

On a somewhat more world-historical level, Christie reports that President Donald Trump and his son-in-law, Jared Kushner, convinced themselves in February 2017 that they had silenced the Russia matter by firing former National Security Adviser Michael Flynn. Christie quotes himself offering this authentically wise advice to Trump: “There is no way you can make this process shorter, but there’s lots of ways you can make it longer. And the biggest way for you to make it longer is by talking about it. Don’t talk about it. That’s the biggest, most important bit of advice I can give you. Don’t talk about it.”

But as so often with insider memoirs, the value comes not from the big stories, but from the small ones.

Christie’s core argument in the Trump-specific portion of his memoir is this: In April 2016, Christie accepted the assignment to run the Trump campaign’s transition process. He went seriously to work to produce something like a normal Republican presidential administration. Trump dangled the vice presidency before Christie as a reward for a job well done. Not one for false modesty, Christie acknowledges that he wanted the office. Governor Christie—as he would remain until January 2018—threw himself into the transition assignment with his familiar intensity. He not only vetted names for offices, but also offered achievable goals for the first year of the new administration.

In the end, all this work was discarded. Christie blames Jared Kushner and Steve Bannon—each of whom feared that a more orderly administration would hem his own influence. Christie minces no words about the consequences:

Instead of high-quality, vetted appointees for key administration posts, [Trump] got the Russian lackey and future federal felon Michael Flynn as national security adviser. He got the greedy and inexperienced Scott Pruitt as administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency. He got the high-flying Tom Price as health and human services secretary. He got the not-ready-for-prime-time Jeff Sessions as attorney general … Too many Rick Dearborns. Too few Kellyanne Conways. A boatload of Sebastian Gorkas. Too few Steven Mnuchins.

As Christie phrases it even more pungently in the book’s most quoted passage, by junking the work of the transition team, Trump burdened himself with “amateurs, grifters, weaklings, convicted and unconvicted felons—who were hustled into jobs they were never suited for, sometimes seemingly without so much as a background check via Google or Wikipedia.”

Christie’s underlying message for the book’s intended one-person presidential audience: It’s not too late to save the day—but only if you “let me finish.” He has evidently not surrendered his ambitions either inside the Trump administration or as a political force in his own right in 2020 or 2024.

Through this shrewd and strategic book, Christie picks his battles carefully. Where he feels on solid ground, he does not flinch from taking even the hardest punch. He tells this funny—and winning—story about the aftermath of his epic January 2014 press conference, in which he answered questions about Bridgegate, the malicious closing of the George Washington Bridge to punish a balky mayor of Fort Lee. Christie accepted every question, answering until the press had no more to ask.

When the press conference was finally over, I went back into my office by myself … My shirt was wet with sweat. A moment later, my phone rang. It was a Dallas number. Against my better judgment, I said hello.

“Is this Governor Christie?” a woman asked.

“It is.”

“Could you please hold for President Bush?”

George W. Bush came on the line. “You did a great job today,” he said.

“Thank you, Mr. President,” I said. “I can’t tell you how much it means to me to hear from you.”

“You stood up there,” he said. “You took all the incoming. You did really well.”

“Mr. President,” I said. “I was on TV for almost two hours. Don’t tell me you watched the whole thing.”

“Buddy,” he said. “I’m retired. I watched the whole damn thing. You’re my guy. You know that. Don’t you worry about it. I’ve just got one question for you.”

“What’s that?”

“Did you do it?”

I couldn’t believe he was asking me that. “Mr. President,” I said, “I just spent all that time on national television saying I didn’t.”

“Yeah, I know,” he said. “Now it’s just me and you, Chris. Remember, I’m the guy who made you US Attorney.”

“Mr. President,” I said, “I did not do it.”

And indeed neither the judicial process nor an independent investigation subsequently found that Christie had advance knowledge of the malicious closure.

But where Christie feels he stands on less certain ground, he preserves a discreet silence. He says not one word in his memoir about his decision to cancel the project to build the first new tunnels under the Hudson River in a century. Nor does Christie delve deeply into the question of exactly why Trump would cooperate with Kushner, Bannon, and Flynn to wreck his own transition and surround himself with incompetents and criminals.

Christie defends his decisions with the gritty realism of the political professional.

Donald Trump was going to be the president, I could help him, and he needed me. The fact that I stood with him early would be good for me and good for my state. If he won, I’d have influence that other people didn’t. I had confidence in my own political judgment. This was a practical decision by me. An election is a binary choice, and I did not want Hillary Clinton to be president.

Yet that gritty realism proved highly unrealistic in the end. Chris Christie could not help Donald Trump. He did not wield influence, as his own book testifies. Standing with Trump was not good for Christie, nor good for New Jersey. The Trump administration’s tax and health-care plans badly hurt New Jersey, crushing Christie’s already weak approval numbers and all but wiping out the New Jersey Republican Party in the state elections of 2017 and the congressional elections of 2018.

That outcome might have prompted second thoughts. Smart and gutsy as he is, Christie must himself feel them. The book’s opening chapters detail Christie’s career as an anti-corruption U.S. attorney who prosecuted wrongdoing regardless of party affiliation. He cannot have been duped by Trump. He duped himself. A book in which this intelligent and determined political pragmatist reckons with that mistake could be a masterwork of American political memoir.

About the time Christie was launching the Trump transition process, Cliff Sims was stumbling upon the greatest opportunity of his rising career in Alabama conservative talk radio.

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