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Christie is out but may not be done trying to stop Trump from winning

The former New Jersey governor regrets endorsing Donald Trump in 2016 and vows to keep fighting to deny him a return to the presidency

Former New Jersey governor Chris Christie announced the end of his Republican presidential campaign on Jan. 10 in Windham, N.H. (Video: The Washington Post)
6 min

Let’s state the obvious. There was never a path for Chris Christie, never a chance that he could become the Republican presidential nominee in 2024. Before he even launched his candidacy, he had burned every bridge with loyalists of former president Donald Trump and probably with some other Republicans as well.

And so, in one sense, his announcement Wednesday that he was suspending his presidential campaign was an anticlimax, a stating of the obvious. The polls had already told everyone the condition of his candidacy. His favorable rating was upside down by a huge margin. He had nothing going anywhere other than in New Hampshire, and even there he wasn’t doing all that well.

And yet the announcement, which came unexpectedly, and just hours before Wednesday night’s debate in Iowa between Nikki Haley and Ron DeSantis and a Fox News town hall featuring Trump, proved to be anything but an ordinary moment.

Christie used his final minutes as an active candidate to issue a challenge to those in his party — to the others running for the nomination, to those already out of the race, to the congressional leaders who are falling in line behind Trump, to the fence-sitters in the party who may loathe Trump but dislike President Biden’s agenda more — to step back and reconsider what a Trump victory in November would mean for the country.

“I would rather lose by telling the truth than lie in order to win,” he said, suggesting that others in the race have been doing just that.

With Trump holding a commanding advantage in the nomination contest, Christie’s departure sparked predictable analysis of who might be helped. Haley, the former U.N. ambassador and former governor of South Carolina, is the most obvious beneficiary. She has been gaining on Trump in New Hampshire, where Christie was strongest, and if much of his support goes to her, New Hampshire could — could — become a real race. And then what?

But the state of the Republican contest is such that, however on target that analysis might be, it misses the greater importance of Christie’s lengthy departure speech. Eight years ago, when he quit the 2016 presidential race, the former New Jersey governor almost immediately — and, to some, surprisingly — endorsed Trump, his friend of long standing.

There seems to be no chance he will do that this time, having spent the entirety of his campaign attacking the former president as unfit for office. But he did not give a boost to either Haley or DeSantis, clearly believing that neither has been willing to speak truth to power about Trump and therefore that neither has proved worthy of becoming the party’s nominee.

Caught on a hot mic before taking the stage at his Wednesday event, Christie was dismissive of both of Trump’s leading challengers. Of Haley, he said that “she’s going to get smoked.” He said DeSantis had called, “petrified” about Christie’s departure. DeSantis said later he had urged Christie to stay in the race but was not petrified about the potential impact.

Detractors will say that Christie was dismissive of his rivals because his own ego would not allow him to endorse anyone else in the race, particularly Haley, despite having defended her on the debate stage in the past. But Christie had other priorities in ending his candidacy, for this is 2024 and not 2016.

Some Christie critics will never forgive him for endorsing Trump eight years ago, or for not truly breaking with him until after the Jan. 6, 2021, attack on the Capitol. But in this campaign, the break was complete. Alone among the candidates, he pounded Trump consistently and at times fiercely.

But he also spoke about the decision he made in 2016 and said the others running now could come to regret doing the same. “For all the people who have been in this race, who have put their own personal ambition ahead of what’s right, they will ultimately have to answer the same questions that I had to answer after my decision in 2016,” he said. “Those questions don’t ever leave.”

Thus, his disappointment with the others in the race, past and current. All fell short of the yardstick by which he has measured the clarity of their convictions. He was pointed about Haley and DeSantis for their desire to have it both ways — competitors to Trump but unwilling to call him unfit.

Christie recalled the moment during the first debate, in Milwaukee, when all eight of the candidates were asked whether they would vote for Trump, if he became the Republican nominee yet had been convicted of a crime. Six others on the stage that night raised their hand to show that they would. After all, they all had made a pledge, as a condition to participate in the debate, that they would support the nominee of the party, whoever that was.

Christie also appeared to raise his hand that night, but it was a gesture of a different kind, an appeal to be given the platform to offer a sharp dissent. If that moment did not encapsulate the contorted shape of the Republican Party under Trump, what else could? The Republicans, Christie said, have become riven with hate, divisiveness and selfishness. Trump, he said, will put himself, rather than the country, first if he is again elected to the presidency.

Whether Christie’s departure will give Haley enough of a boost in New Hampshire to change the trajectory of the race won’t be known until the Jan. 23 primary there. First come Monday’s Iowa caucuses, where Haley and DeSantis are battling to run second, and perhaps a distant second, to the former president.

The two sniped at each other for two hours Wednesday night in their debate at Drake University hosted by CNN, spending far more time tearing the other down than undermining the overwhelming front-runner.

Christie has given the remaining candidates additional space to make their case and find more voters. But that seemed not to be of interest to the former governor. If his dismissals of Haley and DeSantis were genuine, and there’s no reason to think they weren’t, then he anticipates that Trump will be the nominee.

At that point, he will face another question: If he won’t vote for Trump, will he vote for someone who has a real chance of winning, namely the nominee of the Democratic Party, likely to be Biden?

Christie loyalists signaled late Wednesday that, though he is no longer an active candidate, he will not go silent. As one put it, “More to come.” What course that might take isn’t known right now.

His run for the presidency has ended in failure, again. But his quest to deny Trump a second term is not yet over. As he put it Wednesday, “I’m going to make sure that in no way do I enable Donald Trump to ever be president of the United States again.”


A previous version of this story incorrectly stated that seven of the eight candidates at the first Republican debate raised their hands when asked whether they would vote for Donald Trump if he became the Republican nominee yet had been convicted of a crime. In fact, six of the eight candidates raised their hands.