If Trump Wins White House, Christie Will Lead His Transition

by | May 10, 2016

By Salvador Rizzo

Donald Trump's announcement Monday that New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, a friend and early endorser, will head his transition team puts Christie back at the center of national politics -- and gives him a lead role in shaping a potential Trump presidency.

Trump's decision comes only months after Christie ended his own campaign for the Republican nomination that Trump has now effectively won.

Presumptive nominees have rarely disclosed details of their transition plans this early. But Trump has defied convention throughout his campaign, defeating 17 Republican opponents with promises to wall off the Southern border, bar all Muslims from entering the country, impose trade tariffs on China and deport 11 million immigrants estimated to be in the United States illegally.

Experts said Christie has his work cut out for him: He has no experience working in Washington and likely is unfamiliar with the intricacies of the vast federal bureaucracy and the professionals who work in and around it. And he will be reporting to a mercurial candidate who is used to running the show.

"Getting a governor of a major state ain't bad," said Stephen Hess, an expert at the Brookings Institution who has worked in four presidential administrations. "You don't have to explain to anybody who he is."

But Hess added, "Does he really know what all the assistant secretaries of agriculture should do?"

A New York billionaire and reality television star, Trump became the presumptive GOP nominee last week after winning Indiana's Republican primary, which led his last two opponents to exit the race. Trump is now gearing up for a general-election campaign in which he is expected to face off against former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton on the Democratic side, though Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders has not conceded the primary race.

"Governor Christie is an extremely knowledgeable and loyal person with the tools and resources to put together an unparalleled transition team, one that will be prepared to take over the White House when we win in November," Trump said in a statement.

Christie was one of the first Republican officials holding high office to endorse Trump in February. He has said in recent weeks that he would be open to joining Trump on the Republican ticket as the vice presidential nominee. Experts said it is unclear how Christie could juggle both roles -- campaigning as the vice presidential nominee while helming the transition team -- but they added that there is no way to predict whom Trump will pick as his running mate, or, for that matter, his Cabinet.

"I am honored by the confidence being placed in me by Mr. Trump and look forward to putting together a first-rate team," Christie said in a statement released by the Trump campaign.

If Trump wins in November, Christie would be in charge of a committee that would vet potentially thousands of people before assembling the presidential Cabinet and the White House staff and filling a long roster of key positions within the federal bureaucracy.

That Christie would be chosen for the job represents a significant vote of confidence. As recently as December, at a rally in South Carolina, Trump questioned Christie's repeated statements that he had no knowledge of what his aides were doing regarding the 2013 George Washington Bridge lane closures that gummed up traffic for days in Fort Lee.

"He totally knew about it," Trump said of Christie.

"They're closing up the largest bridge in the world," Trump said of Christie's former aides. "They never said, 'Hey boss, we're closing up the George Washington Bridge?' No, they're talking about the weather, right?"

Since it became public that his appointees and a staff member were involved, Christie has said that he had no knowledge of their plans.

Hess said many would-be presidents have chosen transition chairmen who possess "an instinctive sense of where all the bodies are buried," which Christie lacks on the federal level.

"Obviously, the first thing you think about when you think about a transition to Washington is someone who is deeply experienced in Washington, in what the federal government is involved in, in the particular structure of the White House and the needs there," he said. "This is a real, working job."

Christie declined to take questions from reporters Monday after an event in Camden, but his spokesman, Brian Murray, said there would be no trouble balancing the demands of a potential transition team with Christie's agenda in New Jersey.

"He is always governor, no matter where he is, and always handling New Jersey business," Murray said.

As chairman, Christie also would be in charge of fundraising for the transition committee, an entity that can receive up to $13 million in public funds as well as private donations. A federal law first passed in 1963, the Presidential Transition Act, limits donations from individuals and groups to $5,000, according to Lawrence M. Noble, general counsel of the Campaign Legal Center, a Washington watchdog group.

President Barack Obama selected three of his closest advisers -- Valerie Jarrett, John Podesta and Peter Rouse -- to lead his transition team. But Obama announced that slate two days after his election as president in November 2008. Former President George W. Bush tapped a longtime aide, Clay Johnson III, to lead his transition team in 1999, but Johnson's role was not disclosed to the public until weeks after the election in late November 2000. The election was still being disputed by Democratic candidate Al Gore at the time.

When he was preparing to take office in Trenton, Christie chose one of his political mentors, former state attorney general David Samson, to lead his transition team. Christie later appointed Samson chairman of the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, which runs the George Washington Bridge. Samson resigned that position after federal prosecutors began to investigate the bridge scandal.

Even if Christie becomes an expert on the intricacies of staffing the federal government, he would face obstacles convincing "top-flight" people to associate with Trump, Hess said.

"A lot of these people end up as lobbyists for major corporations, and they may feel that working for Donald Trump may not be good for business," he said.

Christie has never worked for Trump, but the two have been friends for more than a decade. And Trump has spoken highly of Christie's political acumen in recent months and has met with the governor as his campaign has continued to grow and rack up primary victories.

Trump is scheduled to hold a rally and a fundraiser in New Jersey later this month. Tickets to the rally cost $200 and, according to a campaign flyer, all proceeds will go to Christie's presidential campaign committee, which is still deep in debt after the governor folded up his campaign in February. Tickets for the fundraiser go for $25,000 apiece and the money will go to the New Jersey State Republican Committee, which, according to state campaign finance filings, also faces a high debt load from covering legal costs associated with the bridge scandal.

(Staff writer Dustin Racioppi contributed to this article.)

(c)2016 The Record (Hackensack, N.J.)