When Chris Christie first met Donald Trump, over dinner at the Manhattan restaurant Jean-Georges in 2002, the developer ordered for both of them. This power move has received insufficient study. When Zadie Smith met Jay-Z, he did this to her, too. “Apparently,” she wrote about the encounter, “I look like the fish-sandwich type.”
Mr Trump had waiters bring Mr Christie the seared scallops and the roasted lamb loin. “I’m allergic to scallops,” Mr Christie recalls in his new memoir, “Let Me Finish: Trump, the Kushners, Bannon, New Jersey, and the Power of In-Your-Face Politics.” He adds, “I’ve always hated lamb.”
The future governor of New Jersey was gleaning lessons in domination. He was an apt pupil. “Let Me Finish” is a superficial and ungainly book that tries to cover so many bases at once – it’s a series of attacks and justifications, it’s a master class in sucking up and kicking down, it’s a potted memoir, it’s a stab at political rehabilitation – that reading it is like watching an octopus try to play the bagpipes.
At heart it’s a reminder that, before Bridgegate, before the 2016 presidential election and before the infamous photographs of him sunbathing on a closed beach during a 2017 state government shutdown, Mr Christie was the favourite political intimidator of many Americans. An alternative title for this unintentionally poignant book might have been, “You Used to Really Like Me, Remember?”
On YouTube, you can still find Mr Christie’s insult highlight reels. “Listen, pal,” he’d respond to a question. He’d call reporters and others “idiot” or “dope” or “stupid.” He’d say, “I look like Tony Soprano, for godsakes.”
Mr Christie managed to be almost cuddly while dispatching this contumely. With his fleece sweaters and his quasi-bipartisan approach (a Republican governor in a blue state), he seemed more like an excitable high school football coach than a mentally unstable uncle.
He had a saving sense of humour. He’d surely seen the bumper stickers about his weight, the ones that read, “My governor can eat your governor.” When he appeared on “Late Show With David Letterman” in 2013, he pulled a jelly doughnut out of his coat pocket and took a bite. “I didn’t know this was going to be this long,” he deadpanned.
Because Mr Christie was positioned to be the brashest candidate in 2016, he had the most to lose from a Trump insurgency. He saw the threat instantly. After the first Republican debate, he said to his wife, “We’ve got a problem.”
“From a stylistic perspective,” Mr Christie writes, “he was everything I was – but on jet fuel.” Mr Christie must have felt like Ewan MacColl, or some other acoustic folkie, watching Bob Dylan plug into his amplifiers at the Newport Folk Festival.
After he dropped out of the 2016 race, Mr Christie became the first governor to endorse Mr Trump. He climbed aboard a Trump campaign that, in this telling, as in so many others, sounds like a train that loses one conductor and six hobos at every turn.
Mr Christie drew on his long friendship with Mr Trump and became a close adviser. Often enough, in his own estimation, he was the only adult in the room. He nearly became MrTrump’s running mate.
He was repeatedly stymied by Jared Kushner, Mr Trump’s son-in-law. Like a fawn, Mr Kushner is seen in this book grazing on what Mr Christie calls “his typical salad.”
Bambi was bent on payback. Mr Christie had helped send Mr Kushner’s father, prominent New Jersey real estate developer Charles Kushner, to prison in a lurid case that involved tax evasion and witness tampering. According to Steve Bannon, Mr Christie writes, Jared Kushner was “obsessed with destroying me.” Every chair Mr Christie sat in had a trap door underneath.
Mr Christie saves his real fire in this book – which was written by a ghostwriter named Ellis Henican – for Mr Bannon, the one-time chief executive of Mr Trump’s campaign. He calls Mr Bannon “self-impressed,” a “snake” and “the only person I have ever met who can look pretentious and like an unmade bed at the very same time.”
Mr Christie accuses Mr Bannon of peddling lies about him to Bob Woodward, among other journalists. More crucially, he remains apoplectic over Mr Bannon’s decision, alongside other advisers, to toss out Mr Christie’s monumental 30-volume plan for Mr Trump’s transition.
This sounds like some document. In addition to a list of vetted candidates for each Cabinet post and numerous other leadership roles, Mr Christie writes, “We had a day-one plan and a 100-day plan once the administration started. We had a 200-day plan after that.”
Mr Trump didn’t want to talk about the transition. Bad karma, he thought. “C’mon, Chris, just close it down,” Mr Trump told him. “Chris, you and I are so smart, and we’ve known each other for so long, we could do the whole transition together if we just leave the victory party two hours early!”
Expecting Mr Trump’s other senior advisers to read 30 volumes, especially from Mr Christie, was like waiting for monkeys to begin typing Shakespeare. In Mr Christie’s view, trashing the transition plan was the original sin of the Trump administration.
The president didn’t get the right people. Instead he got “the revolving door of deeply flawed individuals – 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.”
If Mr Trump had only listened to him, Mr Christie writes, he would have fired James Comey, then director of the FBI, at the start of his administration. His later firing would become, according to Mr Bannon, the worst mistake in modern political history.
If you skim through “Let Me Finish,” riffling the book like a deck of cards, nearly all you will see is Mr Christie saying, in so many words, I told you so.
He told Trump that retired Lt. Gen. Michael Flynn was trouble. He told Mr Trump to stop picking on Khizr Khan, the Gold Star father. He was the only one who could tell Mr Trump when he’d done poorly in a debate. “He needed someone from the world of politics he could talk to,” Mr Christie writes. “Being his peer was a key part of the role that I played.”
Mr Christie’s sense of being right at every moment is wearying. Like a fan that blows for too long, his grill fills with dust.
As a literary performance, this book is nylon, not wool or silk. About his relationship with his brother while growing up, we read: “We fought. We laughed. We played.”
If you want to read an excellent book about Mr Christie and about New Jersey politics, find a copy of Matt Katz’s 2016 biography, “American Governor: Chris Christie’s Bridge to Redemption.” It’s cleareyed but sympathetic. Mr Christie is vastly more likable in it than he is here.
Mr Christie takes care of some old business in “Let Me Finish.” He says he didn’t order or encourage the bridge lane redirections. He didn’t “hug” Barack Obama in the wake of Hurricane Sandy. He was only out there on the closed beach for a short time.
Mr Trump himself comes off rather well in this book. Mr Christie remains a believer. He praises Mr Trump as a father. He writes: “He knows who he is and what he believes in. He has a keen understanding of what regular people are feeling. He commands extraordinary loyalty from his supporters and has unique communication skills.” He thinks it’s not too late for Mr Trump to turn things around.
Is “Let Me Finish” a plea to be let back in, at a high level, to Mr Trump’s administration? Is it a platform from which to run for president in 2020 if Mr Trump drops out? It seems unlikely that Mr Christie will be content to continue wandering the earth like a masterless samurai, a ronin.
Do voters want him back? This self-serving book doesn’t make the most appealing case. Is anyone longing for another in-your-face president? And does he have too much baggage? It may be true that, as Karl Ove Knausgaard put it in one of his “My Struggle” novels, “What’s done is dung and cannot be undung.”
The New York Times