New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie is one among dozens of high-level Trump campaign aides and former Republican administration officials who find themselves excluded from the Trump administration but who expect their fortunes to change. | Getty
Republicans like Chris Christie are counting on lots of turnover in the Trump administration.
Behind closed doors, Chris Christie — unceremoniously sent packing from Donald Trump’s transition headquarters in Washington two months ago — is telegraphing a message to his confidants: I’ll be back.
The hard-charging New Jersey governor is playing the long game, betting that Trump’s senior aides and Cabinet nominees, nearly all of whom lack governing experience, will face unexpected challenges when they settle into the West Wing. Christie turned down several offers to join the Trump administration when he was denied the attorney general post, but he has told associates he expects Trump to turn people like him — seasoned lawmakers and political hands — if and when the neophytes begin to flounder.
Christie is one among dozens of high-level Trump campaign aides and former Republican administration officials who find themselves excluded from the Trump administration — for now — but who expect their fortunes to change.
These Republicans expect the stringent loyalty tests imposed by the transition team to relax over time, and many are already talking about a “second wave” of aides and staffers that is likely to replace the volatile or inexperienced loyalists Trump has tapped.
“There’s waves in everything,” said one senior transition aide. “There’s waves in campaigns. There was [Corey] Lewandowski. Then, there was Paul Manafort. Then, there was [David] Bossie, [Stephen] Bannon, and Kellyanne [Conway]. That’s how Trump operates. It’s ‘Game of Thrones,’ ‘The Apprentice’ and ‘Survivor’ all mixed into one.”
Many predict that Trump will govern in the haphazard way he campaigned, when he burned through three campaign managers over the course of 16 months. He has already created competing power centers in the West Wing, with incoming White House chief of staff Reince Priebus, chief strategist Steve Bannon and senior adviser Jared Kushner working essentially as equals.
With that in mind, a Christie ally said the New Jersey governor, who visited Trump Tower last week, has maintained a relationship with Trump even after his dismissal and that the two have spoken “a bunch” over the past several weeks.
“I think he’s one who feels that there will be a good amount of turnover, and so Trump will be looking for a range of different people and talents as time goes on,” said one New Jersey GOP insider.
A second senior transition aide cast doubt on on the idea that Christie would land in the Trump administration, saying strains between the governor and Trump son-in-law Jared Kushner, the force behind Christie’s firing, would prevent his return.
In the White House, staff shakeups, even those in which aides loyal to the president are replaced with veteran government operators, are not unusual. The first year of a presidency is often defined by domestic and foreign crises that test the mettle of presidential staffers, some of whom invariably flounder. Early in his presidency, Bill Clinton replaced his first White House chief of staff, Mack McLarty, with Leon Panetta, then serving as director of the Office of Management and Budget. McLarty and Clinton had been kindergarten classmates in Arkansas, but McLarty’s dismissal in mid-1994 was the start of a trend that saw longtime Clinton allies replaced by those with deeper government experience.
“It happens in every administration. Tthere are a lot of people who turn out to be bad appointments at various levels, they wash out, and then you get a second wave coming in,” said Eric Edelman, who served as undersecretary of defense for policy in the George W. Bush administration.
Trump’s combustible management style is only one factor that has many predicting the trend will be exacerbated under a President trump. There’s also a deep pool of talent that has been blacklisted from the initial group of administration hires — members of the Republican foreign policy elite who signed one of a series of letters saying Trump’s presidency would put the country’s national security at risk and that they would not vote for him.
As a result, Trump transition aides have essentially banned any signatory from serving in the administration. Senior jobs at the State and Defense departments remain vacant as the search for suitable candidates continues.
Even friends of the signatories, like John Hannah — who served as a national security adviser to former vice president Dick Cheney and whom transition aides are considering for a job in the administration — have been tainted in the process, according to a source familiar with the proceedings. Other national security experts who signed the letters have even been prevented from briefing incoming administration officials, according to the same source.
But most expect the ideological litmus test to relax as the White House Office of Presidential Personnel replaces the transition team. “The idea that you would blackball people completely and not draw on these folks is unusual,” said Edelman, who signed a letter in August warning that Trump would be “the most reckless president in American history.” “It has usually relaxed because of the process of having to replace people. There’s this idea that anybody can do these jobs. Actually, the number of people who have the background, the temperament, the subject matter expertise, is narrower than you would think, and as you go higher up the pyramid, the numbers drop dramatically.”
“I think a year or so down the road, and everybody’s been in the government for a year, and what you did during the election campaign is going to be a lot less important,” said another former Bush administration national security official.
In selecting his Cabinet, Trump has leaned heavily so far on those with deep experience in the private sector but little or no experience in government. Six of the 14 Cabinet nominees he has announced — including his nominee for secretary of state, ExxonMobil CEO Rex Tillerson, Treasury secretary nominee and hedge fund manager Steven Mnuchin, and private equity titan Wilbur Ross, nominated to lead the Department of Commerce — have no experience in government. (Trump has yet to name a nominee to run the Department of Agriculture.)
Though wildly successful in their respective industries, private-sector success has not historically correlated with success in government, adding another potential element of instability to the incoming administration. George W. Bush’s first Treasury secretary, Paul O’Neill, had served a successful 12-year tenure as CEO of Alcoa before he came to Washington. But his focus on workplace safety at the expense of fiscal policy put him at loggerheads with the Bush administration, and he was cast aside after two years. Robert Rubin, on the other hand, ran the Treasury Department for Bill Clinton with great success after spending a quarter-century at Goldman Sachs.
The upshot: “Private sector success is not necessarily a guarantee of government success. The record of people transitioning from the C-suite to the Cabinet is decidedly mixed. Some of his appointments are likely to be a terrific success and some are likely to end up in ugly failure,” said one former Bush administration official, who requested anonymity because he is under consideration for positions in the Trump administration.
The average life span of a Cabinet secretary in any administration is about two years. The turnover “is going to be higher this time around, in all probability,” said Edelman.