It was the Saturday before the Iowa Caucus in 2011, and Chris Christie stood with Mitt and Ann Romney at a rally in a grocery store parking lot in West Des Moines, shaking hands with voters in the 26-degree chill.
Christie joked that, if people didn’t support Romney come caucus night, “I will be back—Jersey style, people.”
When they were finished, Mitt headed to New Hampshire for the night to host a dinner for his supporters while Ann and Christie remained in Iowa to campaign. Ann boarded the campaign bus, but Christie didn’t join her.
Instead, he left to catch a private plane. He wouldn’t have had it any other way.
“We wanted Chris Christie and Ann to do a bus tour, except Christie wouldn’t ride on the bus longer than half an hour,” one former high level Romney aide told The Daily Beast, “because he’s a prima donna.”
Christie’s endorsement of Donald Trump sent shockwaves through the political class on Friday, leaving members of the establishment frustrated by the perceived defection of one of their own. But to hear former Romney aides tell it, other campaigns should just be glad Trump has taken Christie off of their hands.
When you receive Christie’s blessing, they say, it comes at a cost despite its dubious value.
In 2011, Christie was a big get for the Romney campaign.
This was before any scandal with a gate-suffix had attached itself to his reputation, when he was just a popular governor from a blue state whose star wasn’t so much rising as it was launching, both in the Republican Party and the national media.
He was beloved not just by fellow Northeasterners who shared his acid-tongued humor, but by people in the heartland—most importantly for his purposes, Iowa voters.
As he mulled getting into the presidential race himself, he became a familiar face around the state. He frequently jetted off from New Jersey to attend fundraisers and meet with the people who could potentially, one day, become Christie caucus voters. On May 31, seven Iowa businessmen flew to Drumthwacket, the governor’s mansion in Princeton, to try to convince him to run.
In the end, of course, he declined their pleas. He chose to wait in the wings and back Romney.
“There were a group of supporters out there that had tried to push him into the race, and he was very, very well liked out there and so we had a lot of opportunity to try to use him because Mitt was in New Hampshire all the time,” the aide, who spoke on condition of anonymity in order to speak candidly, said.
“As things started to look more promising in Iowa, in November and December, really, we were just trying to cover as much ground as we could. And we didn’t have these huge surrogates that would make a difference — we had Mitt, we had Ann, and Chris Christie.”
At this point in the campaign even Ann, the candidate’s spouse, was flying commercial and rolling in the blue and white Romney bus.
But not Christie.
“Every time we wanted Christie for something it was ‘Well, we need a plane, and we need to bring eight people with us, 10 people with us, it was never him and an aide,” the aide said. “It was this huge entourage that had to go with him all the time.”
A second former Romney staffer described Christie’s hangers-on as “a personality cult that surround him.”
“He and his staff thought so highly of themselves—Christie was by far the most arrogant, self-absorbed surrogate of the entire campaign,” the aide said.
The Romney campaign was struggling financially in the run-up to Iowa. While they were shelling out $30,000 to $50,000 to ferry Christie and friends around in a personal air-chariot, top staffers were taking pay cuts in order to keep the ground game running.
Christie insiders rejected the Romney aides’ claims. They stressed that the governor “campaigned harder for Romney than anyone and went wherever they asked him to,” they said he even traveled by bus if they requested it. One Christie aide said, “they usually provided a plane so he could travel to more places and also get back to New Jersey because of his gubernatorial duties,” but when asked if the planes were offered to or requested by Christie, the aide said only, “I know Romney offered a plane when an RNC plane [the] gov was traveling on broke down.”
From the tone of the responses from others in Christie’s orbit, it seems the governor isn’t the only Trump fan.
“Are you really writing the same tired untrue story that’s already been written?” Mike Duhaime, a longtime adviser to Christie, said. “If so, here’s my comment: ‘No one worked harder for Mitt Romney than Chris Christie. It is a shame some disgruntled former staff are still looking to anonymously peddle complete untruths in order to somehow scapegoat Mitt’s loss.’”
Bill Palatucci, a close friend and adviser to Christie, refused to answer specific questions about the governor’s travel—despite the fact that Romney aides said he accompanied Christie on the road. “Sounds like something you’d write,” Palatucci said when asked for comment.
In Christie’s world, tales of his taste for the high life are “old news,” and it’s true. His extravagant lifestyle has been well-documented, as is the fact that he usually finds someone else to bankroll it for him.
As the United States Attorney, Christie frequently went over budget by staying in 5-star hotels, like the Four Seasons in Washington, D.C., and taking private limos. As governor, his behavior has been much the same. In 2012, billionaire casino magnate and GOP heavyweight Sheldon Adelson lent him his private jet for a trade mission to Israel, according to an exhaustive 2015 New York Times report. King Abdullah of Jordan footed the $30,000 bill for the weekend at a luxury hotel Christie tacked onto the end of the trip, according to the Times. While there, he partied with Bono, “at three parties, two at the king’s residence, the other a Champagne reception in the desert.” Jerry Jones, the owner of the Dallas Cowboys, frequently flies Christie to games. Between 2010 and 2012, the governor expensed $82,000 to entertain guests with food and alcohol at New York Giants and Jets games, according to a watchdog group. Christie is a friend of Woody Johnson, the Jets’ owner, and has flown in his private plane, too.
Unlike in billionaire land, campaigns have a budget—one that Christie seemed to have no problem straining for the pleasure of his company.
“We sort of caved into his needs because we just needed him,” the high level aide said. “It got to the point that, by the end, we wouldn’t use him, because the effort you had to go to—he would throw a conniption fit if the food wasn’t right or the plane wasn’t right.”
The aide added, “we didn’t use him with any kind of regularity because he was just too much trouble.”
And when Christie would catch onto the campaign’s reluctance to deploy him, several Romney aides said, he would personally call Romney to vent.
“He got the hint he directly called Mitt to complain that he was not being used as a surrogate,” one aide said.
But it wasn’t just Christie’s high pricetag that made him a burden. He also seemed to have a talent for kicking the campaign when it was down.
In some ways the friction between Christie and the Romney campaign is well known — many still blame Christie for contributing to Romney’s loss with his effusive praise of President Obama for his handling of Hurricane Sandy. Then there was Christie’s convention speech — which barely mentioned Romney’s name.
In September of 2012, heading into the first debate, the Romney campaign was attempting to recover after a video was published, by Mother Jones, that showed Romney in a private meeting with donors, saying that 47 percent of the populace would never vote for him because “they are victims” who think the government should “care for them” and provide them with “health care, to food, to housing, to you-name-it.”
Things looked grim, and staffers began readying their resumes.
“Our only hope to have any life put back in the campaign was that first debate performance,” the aide told The Daily Beast.
The campaign decided to set expectations low. During a call, surrogates were directed to do the same—especially Christie, who was scheduled to appear on all five Sunday shows (a media blitz known as the “full Ginsberg,” in DC-speak) for the campaign.
Instead, Christie hyped Romney. The aide said, “He goes on the Sunday shows and he’s like ‘Mitt is gonna knock this thing out of the park,’ and I turned to the person next to me and said ‘he is trying to deliberately finish us off.” (The fact that Obama would completely bomb that debate and Mitt would shine was a happy coincidence.)
Luckily for Christie, Trump is very, very rich and can provide for him the lifestyle he enjoys. And for air travel, he won’t have to settle for just any old charter.
Christie can choose from Trump’s fleet of aircrafts, including two helicopters, a small private jet and a large, commercial-sized Boeing 757-200 that is outfitted with a dining room, two bedrooms, a shower and 24-carat gold plated seat belts.
He deserves it.