USA TODAY - Shortly after Gov. Chris Christie launched his campaign for president in 2015, a lavish fundraiser took place at a block-long beachfront property on Ocean Avenue in Long Branch — but for the benefit of another candidate.
The invitations read: “Seryl and Charles Kushner invite you to their home to meet DONALD TRUMP,” with the candidate’s name in red letters beneath a pair of American flags.
The following day, Christie said he didn’t mind campaign money being taken out of his backyard for Trump, his longtime friend.
But it’s now clear the New Jersey Republican could have done without the Kushner family coming back into his life.
Seryl and Charles Kushner are the parents of Trump son-in-law Jared Kushner, who reportedly blocked Christie from becoming Trump’s vice presidential nominee and now has led the ouster of Christie allies from the president-elect’s transition organization.
The motive: Christie as U.S. attorney was involved in the prosecution of Charles Kushner, who was sentenced to prison in 2005 on 18 counts of tax evasion, witness tampering and making illegal campaign donations.
The latest casualty came Wednesday: Kevin O’Connor, who is close to Christie and has been leading the Justice Department transition team, is out. Christie and O’Connor were both U.S. attorneys at the same time, O’Connor in that role for Connecticut from 2002 until 2008 while Christie was serving in New Jersey.
The changes — which started last week and included Christie’s demotion from leader of the transition team to a role as vice chairman — are said to be a purge of Christie loyalists set into motion by the younger Kushner.
When asked to comment on reports of Jared Kushner’s role in the purging, Trump spokesman Jason Miller said that “couldn’t be further from the truth,” but that the younger Kushner is someone whom “obviously the president-elect seeks and respects his counsel very much.’’
But the number of transition team members with Christie connections who are gone or knocked down in rank has reached at least four, leading Rutgers University political scientist Ross Baker to say, “I have to believe it’s a Kushner revenge.’’
“That’s the only way to explain these demotions and departures. I don’t buy the argument that Christie flunked some kind of loyalty test. I think it’s Jared Kushner’s high hand behind this whole thing and it’s a little bit of karma, because Christie is known for getting even with people, too,’’ Baker said.
Weeks ahead of Election Day, Christie’s loyalty to Trump was called into question when he drifted from the campaign at perhaps its lowest ebb, when the Access Hollywood tape surfaced in which Trump bragged about groping women. Trump’s behavior was defended by other campaign surrogates. But Trump thanked Christie for his support since then.
“No one outside the process can be 100% certain, but it sure does look like Christie was singled out,’’ said Larry Sabato, head of the Center for Politics at the University of Virginia. “He’s governor for another year so perhaps that’s a lucky break. Who knows what the situation will be in a year? Maybe there will be an appropriate job available then.’’
The changes have resulted in a wild swing of expectations for Christie since Trump defeated Democrat Hillary Clinton last week. Christie became a Trump supporter after ending his own presidential bid in February.
After the results came in last week, Christie joined Trump on stage at the Hilton in Midtown Manhattan for the victory party. “Gov. Chris Christie, folks, was unbelievable,” Trump told the crowd. “Thank you, Chris.”
And Christie appeared excited about an anticipated job in the new Trump administration in an interview on the Today show last Thursday.
“If there’s some role for me that I want to do and that the president-elect wants me to do — you know, we’ve known each other for 14 years — we’ll talk about it,’’ Christie told co-host Matt Lauer.
Jared Kushner, 35, has been married to Ivanka Trump since October 2009. He is a New York and New Jersey real estate developer, and he also owns the New York Observer newspaper.
When Charles Kushner was sentenced, Christie spiked the football in a press release.
“The court of law was the great equalizer for Mr. Kushner, who had obviously convinced himself that his power, influence and immense wealth put him above the law,’’ Christie said. “We are very pleased that justice was done.’’
When his father had his legal difficulties, Jared Kushhner was interning at then-Manhattan District Attorney Robert Morgenthau’s office. In a 2013 interview with The Real Deal, which covers New York real estate news, Jared Kushner said he changed his career choice because of the handling of his father’s case.
“My dad’s arrest made me realize I didn’t want to be a prosecutor anymore,” he said. “The law is so nuanced. If you’re convicting murderers, it’s one thing. It’s often fairly clear. When you get into things like white-collar crime, there are often a lot of nuances. Seeing my father’s situation, I felt what happened was obviously unjust in terms of the way they pursued him. I just never wanted to be on the other side of that and cause pain to the families I was doing that to, whether right or wrong.’’
Jared Kushner hasn’t commented publicly on transition matters, but there were reports he was involved when Trump chose Indiana Gov. Mike Pence as his running mate, rather than Christie, who was among Trump’s earliest GOP establishment supporters.
Trump in the summer actually offered the VP slot first to Christie, but Jared Kushner and other family members and close advisers talked him in to giving the nod to Pence instead, according to a press report. Christie denies that sequence took place, but said he was the “runner-up.’’
Christie in a radio interview Tuesday indicated that he’d be content to remain as governor until his term ends in January 2018, as reports swirled that his stock with Trump had fallen.
Not only was Christie demoted to vice chairman of the Trump transition organization, former Congressman Mike Rogers, a close friend of Christie’s and brought aboard during Christie’s six months in charge, left the project Tuesday.
NBC News reported two sources close to Rogers said he had been the victim of what one called a “Stalinesque purge” from the transition of people close to Christie.
Also taking hits have been Bill Palatucci, who had been the transition’s general counsel, and Rich Bagger, the executive director. They lost their titles last Friday. Palatucci and Bagger, both of whom have been longtime Christie associates, are now transition advisers.
Rutgers University’s Baker said the changes are likely causing delays to completing the government handover, which entails filling roughly 4,000 federal jobs and appointments.
“They really have to get the train on track,’’ Baker said. “Plus you’re trying to set up an administration for someone with no governmental experience and who operates a lot on whim and impulse. People who trying to read the crystal ball are going to find it cloudy on how this is going to look by Inauguration Day.’’
Follow Bob Jordan on Twitter: @BobJordanAPP
Copyright 2016 Asbury Park (N.J.) Press