Jeffrey Toobin, the legal analyst at CNN and The New Yorker, delivered the week’s most righteous rant over President Donald Trump’s firing of FBI Director James Comey. “Can we point out that the emperor is not wearing any clothes?” he asked on Tuesday night. “This is an investigator who is investigating the White House,” he said, exasperated, “and he was just fired by the White House.” Then Toobin seized on the most dire consequence of Comey’s removal: that Trump might appoint a new FBI director who would end the bureau’s probe into potential Trump campaign connections to Russia’s interference in last year’s election. “They will put in a stooge who will shut down this investigation,” Toobin said. “Donald Trump will put in, maybe Chris Christie, someone who will do his bidding.”
With the exception of former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani, who insists he isn’t getting the position, Christie is the biggest Trump loyalist under consideration to replace Comey. Trump fired Christie as head of his presidential transition team back in November, then passed him over for attorney general. But the president did reportedly offer him other cabinet posts, which he declined, and the two have remained in close contact in recent months. Governor Christie is massively unpopular in New Jersey, due in part to the Bridgegate scandal, so a major appointment from Trump is his best chance for a political lifeline. Not that his selection would go over smoothly.
The New Republic’s Eric Armstrong wrote on Wednesday that Christie’s appointment would give Trump a “yes-man FBI director” at a time when America desperately needs one who’s independent and impartial. Christie watchers generally concur.
“I’m of two minds about whether he would be a loyalist or not,” said WNYC political reporter Matt Katz, a longtime Christie chronicler who published a biography of the governor last year. “To his credit, when he was U.S. attorney, he went after any number of corrupt Republican politicians.” Since Christie endorsed Trump’s presidential bid last year, though, Katz said his politics have been entirely different: “He has not been the non-partisan, corruption-fighting hero that he used to be.”
After Christie failed to gain traction in last year’s Republican presidential primary, he was the first Republican governor and an early establishment figure to get behind Trump. Katz says Christie always liked the president, with whom he shares a “New York-New Jersey bravado and smack-talking approach to humor and conversation.” The two first met over a decade ago, when Christie was New Jersey’s top federal prosecutor and Trump owned Atlantic City casinos. The New York Times reported that the governor enjoyed touting their friendship: “Much like Mr. Trump, Mr. Christie had shown that he liked to be around People Who Matter.” Christie professed his affection for Trump even as he campaigned against him in last year’s primary, and he has remained fiercely loyal to Trump since endorsing him.
“Looking at it that way,” Katz told me, “it is hard to imagine him becoming FBI director and running an independent investigation targeting the president, his friend, who just appointed him.”
Tom Moran, The Star-Ledger’s editorial page editor, was more blunt.
“I think he’d be about the worst choice in the world,” he said. “It horrifies me.”
Any hope that Christie could be an independent, impartial FBI director stems from his record fighting public corruption as U.S. attorney for the District of New Jersey from 2002 to 2008. He resigned touting “convictions or guilty pleas in the cases of 130 elected and appointed public officials, without losing a single case,” according to The New York Times. And those cases included officials from both parties. New Jersey Democrats always charged that his prosecutions were political, but, Katz said, “His record of being bipartisan and going after corruption was why he got elected governor.”
Ralph J. Marra Jr., a lifelong Democrat who served as Christie’s top aide in the U.S. Attorney’s office, insists the governor would bring that same spirit to the FBI. “He has a relationship with Trump, but I think he’d be very independent,” Marra told me. “I don’t buy that he’s going to take a dive for this guy.” But Marra is hardly impartial: Christie remains his friend, and appointed him as general counsel at the New Jersey Sports and Exposition Authority in 2010.
Moran used to defend Christie against charges that he politicized the U.S. Attorney’s office; the The Star-Ledger endorsed the governor’s re-election in 2013. But he’s lost all faith in Christie’s integrity since then, and wonders whether Christie’s critics were right all along. “I don’t think there’s any hard evidence he abused his position,” Moran said. “It does make me want to dig up those files and make a new judgment. I’m more agnostic than I was.”
Asked how a Director Christie would handle the Russia investigation, Moran said, “My guess is he would find no wrongdoing by Team Trump.” Brigid Callahan Harrison, a Montclair State University professor and New Jersey politics expert, is equally skeptical. She and Katz both mentioned Christie’s commissioning of the so-called “Mastro Report,” a taxpayer-funded Bridgegate probe led by former Giuliani aide Randy Mastro, which found the governor blameless. The New York Times editorial board called it “a ridiculous whitewash,” and Katz said it’s now “widely considered a sham.” “If past behavior is an indicator of future performance, I would expect that the rest of the county could get Mastroed,” Harrison said.
“I do wonder if that 10-year term might be a little much for Christie,” Katz said, referring to the duration of the FBI director position. “That’s a long time. He gets antsy.” Though, Katz added, “I guess he could always resign.” “Perhaps the best thing to do from a base political perspective is to get in there, take on Trump, and get fired,” added Ben Dworkin, who directs the Rebovich Institute for New Jersey Politics at Rider University. “It would be a badge of honor.”
Somewhat facetiously, Katz mused that a Director Christie could decide it was politically advantageous to take on Trump, maybe even using it as a launching pad for another presidential run of his own. “That would be a little too House of Cards of a scenario to imagine just yet,” Katz said, but added, “I mean, the world is so crazy, that’s a plausible scenario.” As Bob Ingle, a longtime New Jersey political journalist who co-authored his own Christie biography, put it to me: “One thing you have to understand about Chris Christie: he is always looking at the next job.”