TRENTON, N.J. — Donald Trump is pledging that the government he appoints will bring sweeping change to Washington’s culture. So far, that promise comes with a heavy New Jersey accent.
Despite being passed over for the job of Trump’s running mate, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie and an entourage of his closest allies could leave a lasting mark on a Trump administration, should he win in November.
As chairman of Trump’s transition team, Christie is building a coalition of advisers who will staff key federal government agencies and execute new policy prescriptions if Trump wins the general election. Among them, are two of his longtime aides, Rich Bagger, a lobbyist who helped lead Christie’s gubernatorial transition team and Bill Palatucci, a top Christie adviser whose law firm has been showered with government legal work.
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“The chairman is the public face, sets the tone and ensures the transition has good connectivity with the candidate,” said Clay Johnson, who served as executive director of George W. Bush’s transition team in 2000.
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The team also includes Trump’s son-in-law Jared Kushner — a New Jersey native — along with some experienced government officials such as Jaime Burke, who was the personnel director for the Romney transition team in 2012 and a White House liaison to Health and Human Services under George W. Bush.
Christie is also hosting a transition team fundraiser in New Jersey later this month promising to give an inside look at the team for $5,000 a person.
Presidential transition teams lay the groundwork early since the winner is ultimately faced with the daunting task of readying the new administration in the two and a half months between Election Day and the inauguration.
“You have to be proactive,” Johnson added. “We didn’t know how fast warp speed was but a transition goes faster than that. It’s a mind boggling challenge.”
As a former presidential contender, Christie has taken some very public swings at his opponent-turned-ally. He’s called the New York businessman “thin-skinned,” and said Trump’s proposed Syria policies are “painfully naive.”
Also Christie, like a number of Trump’s closest advisers, brings his own share of baggage to the campaign. The embattled governor is still grappling with the fallout from a scandal back home, after lanes were closed on the George Washington bridge for political retribution. Lawyers for former Christie appointee Bill Baroni recently revealed text messages sent from an administration staffer to a campaign staffer that Christie “flat out lied” about his knowledge of the scandal.
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Christie, who has not been charged and denies wrongdoing, disputed the remarks and called them “ridiculous.” The criminal trial against Baroni and another former Christie aide is scheduled to begin Sept. 19.
Personal relationships have counted for a lot in previous presidential transition teams: George W. Bush tapped his longtime appointments director and chief of staff Johnson along with Dick Cheney, who chaired the effort, and Barack Obama’s close adviser and friend Valerie Jarrett co-chaired his 2008 transition.
In Trump’s case, however, it appears to be Christie’s relationships that count.
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Palatucci, a good friend of Christie’s and longtime adviser, is serving as the transition team’s counsel and Bagger, Christie’s first chief of staff who is now an executive at a biopharmaceutical firm with close ties to his administration, was hired as executive director.
A former law partner and Republican political player, Palatucci is a longtime lobbyist for Community Education Centers and helped the company get contracts to house convicted criminals in privatized halfway houses.
In late 2012, Palatucci left that job to join the law firm Gibbons, P.C. — which has been one of the biggest recipients of state contracts for outside legal work since Palatucci was hired. That includes more than $3 million to defend the state in a whistleblower suit involving an investigation of a Christie donor who received a fake law enforcement ID badge.
That donor founded Celgene, the New Jersey biotech firm Bagger left the Christie administration to work for.
As part of his lobbying job for the company, Bagger also accompanied Christie on international economic policy trips that many saw as precursors to his presidential campaign. They were funded by a nonprofit called Choose New Jersey, which is financed by business contributions from Celgene and other businesses.