Let Me Finish: Trump, the Kushners, Bannon, New Jersey, and the Power of In-Your-Face Politics
By Chris Christie (with Ellis Henican)
Hachette Books, 2019
Adding to the steadily-growing pile of what we’ll perforce call “Trump books” is Let Me Finish by former New Jersey governor Chris Christie, who was a Republican candidate for the Presidential nomination Trump eventually won, was one of Trump’s earliest A-list supporters (as Christie puts it in this book, when he decides to back somebody, he backs them early). Let Me Finish is Christie’s Trump book: he characterizes Trump as a long-time friend, and his portrait of his own brief sojourn through “Trump world” is just about one hymnal short of Biblical; it’s Daniel in the Lion’s Den, if Daniel was YouTube-savvy and every single lion had a C-list lawyer.
The ballast of these books is always their insistence that they’re not opportunistic cash-grabs. Their authors work against such accusations by larding the much smaller story that actually interests general readers with a much larger story that very likely doesn’t even interest its own participants. Even the staunchest political junky will wilt a bit, for instance, when encountering: “Once I gave it a chance, the University of Delaware was a perfect fit for me. I was challenged and inspired by some brilliant teachers.”
Fortunately, Christie and his extremely talented collaborator Ellis Henican don’t dawdle very long before getting to the highlights of Christie’s colorful political career. Here readers get the combative governor whose frequent unscripted town hall meetings racked up, it’s repeatedly stressed, terrific numbers on YouTube. Anyone who’s ever watched one of those videos will have to acknowledge their entertainment value, and Christie in these pages is well aware of it:
If people were civil, I answered civilly. If people were rude, they got rudeness in return. Most of politics is so phony. I think most people appreciated the fact that I wasn’t phony at all. I explained what we were doing and explained the need to do it. I was happy to debate the alternatives. The people said what they were thinking, and so did I.
The central point there - that Christie is genuine, likes being genuine, responds to genuineness in others, retained his genuineness through trial and scandal, and rests in it to this day - is the core point of Let Me Finish. There is no theater more treasured in New Jersey than the theater of the “stand-up guy,” and the version of himself that Christie puts forward in this book is a protracted Parson Weems assertion that it would be an affront to his manhood to tell a lie.
Once we leave the leafy groves of the University of Delaware, that assertion becomes, to put it politely, embattled. Even readers who know almost nothing about Christie will have heard of “Bridgegate,” the incident in 2013 in which unannounced lane closures on the George Washington Bridge resulted in horrific traffic jams and a firestorm of outrage and lawsuits. Christie underlings were eventually indicted and convicted of deliberately creating the crisis in order to punish a local politician who’d refused to endorse Christie’s reelection campaign. Christie himself wasn’t implicated, but the damage was done: in most political estimates then and now, “Bridgegate” cost him a credible shot at the White House. And it’s addressed squarely in Let Me Finish:
Just to be clear: I didn’t know about any of this. I didn’t order it or encourage it. I didn’t hint in any way that I would tolerate anybody using traffic on the George Washington Bridge for any improper purpose.
This defense, so manifestly unbelievable, is repeated throughout the book in every context where open venality requires a human sacrifice: Person [X] had pure motives; Person [X] would never dream of doing Horrible Thing [Y] that’s been alleged; Person [X] was betrayed by underlings. When Chris Christie, well-known in New Jersey government circles for his temper and his peevishness, seems to have orchestrated (or ignored the orchestration of) a catastrophically inconvenient infrastructure failure (the GW is the single busiest bridge in the country), the truth is that scheming, petty staffers were the guilty ones. When the campaign of Mitt Romney, well-known in Massachusetts government circles for his temper and his peevishness, seems to be callously demanding that Christie do campaign stumping events for him even as Hurricane Sandy bears down on the Jersey shore, the truth is that scheming, petty staffers were the guilty ones: Mitt, we’re told, was both unfailingly gracious and completely unaware.
And you can predict with 100% accuracy where such a defense is headed: straight to the Oval Office. In Christie’s telling, Donald Trump is good friend and a phenomenally intuitive reader of people. His showing, in anecdote after anecdote, dramatizes the exact opposite impression, and the high probability that this contrast is intentional ends up being nearly overwhelmingly depressing as the book’s third act commences. This Donald Trump is a political neophyte and an intellectual nincompoop, although a coarsely likable one, and his unconventionality is both his strength and his weakness:
Normal processes that are part of almost every major presidential campaign - the close involvement of lawyers, the vetting of questionable information that arrives over the transom, the protection of high-level staffers from outside influences - none of that existed in the Trump campaign. That fly-by-the-seat-of your-pants approach is part of what gave the campaign its grounding and its energy. But it also left the staff and the candidate vulnerable in many different ways.
In other words, he’s not corrupt, he’s just staffed that way. This is pure nonsense, as a lifelong lawyer and politician like Christie must know perfectly well, but like so much else in Let Me Finish, it’s also much worse than nonsense, much darker, since it’s all enlisted in the cause of evil. Its purpose is to redeem the irredeemable, but like every other time Christie uses the gambit in this book, it’s a very carefully calculated kind of redemption. It’s an old lawyer’s precaution: a defense that seems full-throated but actually allows the defender a good deal of leeway to back out if things get rocky. Let Me Finish touts it’s in-your-face straight talking at every turn, but it has more back-door escape hatches than a New Orleans brothel.
It’s all through the book in implication; any lawyer reading these pages will spot instantly all the things it’s very, very careful not to discuss. Everywhere, Christie makes a big deal of coming clean and speaking bluntly about controversies. The video of him, ice cream cone in hand, angrily browbeating a random heckler on a New Jersey boardwalk, the video of him staring aimlessly into space behind Trump at an event, the video of him greeting President Obama in the wake of Hurricane Sandy … each is related and then defended, and although the defenses ring true in the character of the stand-up guy, the plainspoken public servant, it’s impossible to avoid their common factor: these are all on videotape. This isn’t record-setting; it’s reverse-engineering.
Which is bad enough when it’s applied only to a former governor and Presidential candidate, but enormously worse when it’s applied to President Trump. Christie makes good booking traction on cable news shows by sagaciously hemming and hawing about things far, far worse than political naivete, and all of it is couched in the same calculation that runs through Let Me Finish: Person [X] had pure motives; Person [X] would never dream of doing Horrible Thing [Y] that’s been alleged; Person [X] was betrayed by underlings. Mountains of evidence, a rack of legal indictments, and a phalanx of prosecutors (many of them Christie’s former colleagues) simply preclude this calculation - Christie’s insistence that Trump is the one thing he most certainly is not - innocent - has a papery quality that’s ultimately almost soiling to read. Not a single word of Let Me Finish would need to be changed if Trump were found guilty of high treason tomorrow.
There’s a simple truth that completely contradicts the heart of Let Me Finish: none of the things Donald Trump has repeatedly and openly shown himself to be are the fault of bad staffing. He would still be all of those things, he would still be proud of being all of those things, even if every Bannon and Kushner and Miller were banished from Washington. Every bit of reporting on the subject strongly hints that as the first leader of Trump’s transition team, Christie did everything he could to avert the chaotic, amoral, kleptocratic disaster he saw headed for the White House. His old friend fired him from that job before he could complete it. His old friend doesn’t deserve his loyal defense in 2019, and the reading public deserves his straight-talking account of that disaster, not this weasley political version of “the butler did it.”
Steve Donoghue was a founding editor of Open Letters Monthly. His book criticism has appeared in the Boston Globe, the Wall Street Journal, The Spectator, and the American Conservative. He writes regularly for the National, the Washington Post, the Vineyard Gazette, and the Christian Science Monitor. His website is http://www.stevedonoghue.com.