Chris Christie: The GOP Rival Who Trump Wants to Avoid
As Donald Trump continues threatening to skip the Republican Party’s planned presidential primary debates, one of his rivals is making it clear why the former president may want to stay clear of him: Trump’s onetime debate coach and now unsparing critic, Chris Christie.
A Three-Time Loser
“He is a three-time loser,” Christie said of Trump in a recent radio interview, referring to 2018, 2020, and 2022, when the GOP, led by Trump, did poorly in federal elections. “And I cannot understand why our party wants to be led by a three-time loser who cares only about himself and not the party or the country.”
The Singular Focus
The former New Jersey governor, who officially announced his candidacy just four weeks ago, has emerged as the one Republican hopeful willing to make Trump the singular focus of his campaign.
The Path to Nomination
“There’s one lane. And that one lane, Donald Trump’s at the head of. So, if you want to be the nominee, you got to go through Donald Trump. I don’t think there’s any other way to do it,” Christie told ABC News last month.
It’s unclear whether Trump is afraid to face his former sparring partner onstage. Trump’s campaign did not respond to Agency’s queries and interview requests.
But based on Christie’s track record and his statements about how he intends to deal with Trump, if the former president is not afraid of debating him, he probably should be. Christie himself has hinted as much, although he said Trump was afraid to debate generally, and not afraid of Christie specifically.
Unfit for Office
While other candidates dance around the question of Trump’s behavior on and leading up to his Jan. 6, 2021, coup attempt and his efforts to hide secret documents he had taken from the White House from authorities seeking their return, Christie has said, often and loudly, that those actions make the former president unfit for office.
“It was one of the most disgraceful days in American history and … the president was principally responsible for it,” Christie said last week on CNN. “Donald Trump, the entire time, sat outside the Oval Office, that little dining room of his, eating a well-done cheeseburger and watching TV and doing nothing to stop what was going on.”
Taking the Fight Directly to Trump
Even before officially entering the race, Christie made clear that he intended to take the fight directly to Trump if he made it to the debate stage, and that included attacking Trump’s morals as well as his record.
During an April appearance on a podcast hosted by allies of Senate GOP leader Mitch McConnell, Christie recounted how Trump, knowing he had tested positive for COVID one Saturday morning, attended hourslong debate prep sessions with Christie and several other advisers over the next four days without mentioning the test result. All but one person contracted the disease, and Christie nearly died from it.
“What’s the character of somebody who’s willing to do that?” Christie asked.
Learning from the Past
During his first run for the 2016 nomination, Trump benefited immensely by not being taken seriously by his rivals. His debate style was to make outlandish boasts about himself and equally outrageous promises about what he would accomplish, all while insulting his opponents as incompetent and corrupt. In response, his rivals would either ignore him or, in some cases, actually praise him for having good ideas.
“Here is the thing about Donald Trump. Donald Trump is hitting a nerve in this country,” said then-Ohio Gov. John Kasich during the first debate, in what would become a common refrain. “And for people who want to just tune him out, they’re making a mistake.”
By the time other Republicans realized they had to confront Trump in late 2015, he was already on a path to win the early state contests and roll to the nomination.
“Playing nice with Trump, which was our entire strategy, in the end doesn’t work,” said Rick Tyler, a top aide in the 2016 campaign of Texas Sen. Ted Cruz, who repeatedly praised Trump, only to have Trump eventually call his wife ugly and his father an assassin.
Trump’s Rivals Today
Whether that lesson has been absorbed by most of Trump’s rivals eight years later remains unclear. Candidates including South Carolina Sen. Tim Scott, former South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley, and Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis seem reluctant to criticize Trump directly.
Marc Short, former Vice President Mike Pence’s chief of staff, said Trump nevertheless is not likely to get the same kid-glove treatment he enjoyed in the early debates of the 2016 cycle.
“It’s fair to say that it will be a very different dynamic,” Short said, but added that he doubted Trump is fearful of facing any of the others onstage, Pence and Christie included. “He enjoys having a foil.”
Trump’s Debate Strategy
Trump has said for months that, given his large polling lead, he feels no need to show up at a debate that could serve to boost his opponents. He repeated that sentiment in an interview with Reuters last week, claiming that he was fielding offers to appear at a different event the same night as the RNC debate on Aug. 23.
“Not to be braggadocious, but the debate will not be a very exciting one if I’m not there,” he said.
Trump used the same strategy in January 2016, when he skipped a debate in Iowa just before the caucuses there to hold his own rally. He wound up narrowly losing the state to Cruz.
Christie has predicted that Trump’s ego will not permit him to skip the Aug. 23 debate and that if somehow he does, the sight of Christie and others attacking him onstage despite his absence would enrage him and make his presence at the second debate in California the following month a certainty.
An Open Question
Of course, whether Christie qualifies for the first debate is an open question. The RNC’s debate committee, chaired by a two-time Trump campaign adviser, set requirements that could be hard for many of the declared candidates to meet. Not only must they show donations from 40,000 different donors, but they must also show 1% support on at least three polls that have surveyed at least 800 likely primary voters — a sample size threshold that few public pollsters hit.
Anthony Scaramucci, once a Trump backer and briefly a Trump White House aide who is now backing Christie, said he is confident Christie will wind up on the debate stage, and that when he does, his extensive history with Trump would give him a huge advantage compared to other candidates.
And while Trump has gotten accustomed to bullying others on the debate stage and getting little or no pushback, that approach would not work with Christie.
“Chris is a different beast because he doesn’t care,” Scaramucci said, adding that taking down Trump is Christie’s entire strategy. “Chris’ view is that if he takes out the king, he becomes the king.”