What if Donald Trump has to fight a grudge match against Liz Cheney and Chris Christie on his way to a second term? This scenario is probably more likely than you might think—one with significant consequences.
Both Cheney and Christie are tough pugilists, and both are in the news flirting with a presidential run. In a sense, they are already running against him.
This past week, Cheney traveled to Manchester, New Hampshire, and delivered a “standing ovation” speech that was interpreted by CNN as “testing the waters” for a presidential bid. During the speech, she staked out conservative ground criticizing Joe Biden and Trump, saying the latter is at war “with the rule of law and the Constitution.”
Although Cheney isn’t directly talking about a presidential bid, she has been around long enough to know that such trips to the Granite State are sure to stoke speculation. Indeed, CNN interviewed former RNC committeeman Tom Rath, who argued there is a path to victory for Cheney.
Meanwhile, Christie angered Trump last weekend by urging his party to move on from 2020. “We can no longer talk about the past and the past elections—no matter where you stand on that issue, no matter where you stand, it is over,” Christie said during a speech to the Republican Jewish Coalition in Las Vegas. He continued, saying the GOP better “take our eyes off the rearview mirror and start looking through the windshield again.”
Trump issued a statement dinging Christie for the comments, provoking this sharp retort from Christie: “When I ran for reelection in 2013, I got 60% of the vote,” he said. “When he ran for reelection, he lost to Joe Biden.”
This matters because people are coming to terms with the likelihood that Donald Trump will run for president in 2024. If he runs, conventional wisdom suggests he will easily win the Republican nomination (indeed, many potential 2024 candidates would likely sit out the campaign if Trump runs). Then, if it’s a binary choice between Trump and Joe Biden (or Kamala Harris), it’s plausible to imagine Trump actually winning a second term.
People who view Trump as an existential threat to our democracy should explore every possible way of derailing his candidacy. Everyone assumes Trump would coast to the Republican nomination—and maybe he will. But Cheney and Christie both have the potential to pose a more formidable challenge, and less convenient foils, than any of the candidates Trump rolled over on his way to the presidency in 2016.
For one thing, they won’t be surprised by him this time. For another—and this is key—they can talk.
Consider Christie’s jab at Trump for losing to Biden: It demonstrates Christie’s toughness and it happens to be true.
Running against Trump requires the kind of quick wit and sharp elbows that Christie seems to naturally possess. “He can throw a punch and he can take a punch,” Republican strategist Scott Reed says. Simply put, it may take a bully to beat a bully (or, at least, damage a bully).
But we also shouldn’t sleep on Christie’s electability argument. Trump (no matter what he says) did lose to Biden. What is more, Glenn Youngkin’s win in Virginia proves that a non-Trump candidate can juice the Republican base and win back suburbanites. This is a point that Christie was hammering long before Youngkin’s surge. This summer, he told the Dispatch podcast that “suburban white voters didn’t abandon us because of issues; they abandoned us because they didn’t want Donald Trump any longer. It was a personal rejection.”
Cheney’s toughness is likewise obvious. Can you imagine what it must have been like growing up in the same house as Dick and Lynne Cheney? By voting to impeach Trump and later serving on the January 6 Commission, Cheney demonstrated the type of stubborn political courage that is a prerequisite for this mission—should she choose to accept it.
Speaking of her mission, I’m assuming it would be to damage Trump (rather than to actually win the nomination). Anyone who remembers the way Christie destroyed Marco Rubio in that 2016 “murder-suicide” debate maneuver knows that if you’re willing to trade your political life for your opponents’, you become a very dangerous individual.
Taking the fight to Trump would also be a way for Cheney, who is defending her House seat from a Trump-backed primary challenger in Wyoming, to turn the tables and go on offense.
Whereas Christie (a former Trump ally who began distancing from Trump after last November’s loss) would likely stress the need to move on from Trump for pragmatic reasons, Cheney’s message would likely involve shaming Trump and making the moral case that he’s a danger to the republic. It’s a one-two punch.
This is not the first time Cheney and Christie have traded blows with Trump. In the past, Trump has referred to Cheney as “a bitter, horrible human being” who is a “smug fool” and a “loser RINO.” But because Trump is famous for his thin skin and penchant for punching back after real or perceived criticism, it’s impossible to discern whether this means Trump perceives either as a legitimate threat.
If the election were held today, it seems likely that Trump would win the nomination. The question is, what will the world look like in a couple of years? What is more, what will Trump look like when he’s two years older and potentially worked over by Cheney and Christie?
There are too many variables to know for certain how this might play out (for example, would Cheney steal votes from Christie, which ironically would serve to help Trump)? The stakes are incredibly high.
Unlike his first term, Trump wouldn’t be reigned in as much by leaders who might push back or slow walk his orders. “I’m really worried about a return of Donald Trump,” the Atlantic’s David Frum told me, “because this time the Velociraptors have figured out how to work the doorknobs.”
Liz Cheney and Chris Christie might actually be our best chance to lock the door and throw away the key.