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The Guardian - US
The Guardian - US
Martin Pengelly in New York

Chris Christie says he’s anti-Trump – but did he secure a presidential pardon for a crony?

A photograph of former President Trump hangs on the wall as Republican Presidential candidate former, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie listens to a question during a gathering, Tuesday, June 6, 2023, in Manchester, N.H. Christie filed paperwork Tuesday formally launching his bid for the Republican nomination for president after casting himself as the only candidate willing to directly take on Trump.
Chris Christie can’t escape his association with Donald Trump. Photograph: Charles Krupa/AP

A leading US ethics expert said the former New Jersey governor Chris Christie, who this week launched a presidential campaign aimed at taking down Donald Trump, owes the American public an explanation of why and how he secured a pardon for a powerful New Jersey Republican, issued on Trump’s last day in the White House.

“We just don’t know the answer to that,” Noah Bookbinder, president of Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington (Crew), said. “And I think we should.”

Trump is the clear Republican frontrunner to face Joe Biden next year. But Christie says Trump is not fit to return to the White House, given his scandal-plagued time in office and his incitement of the January 6 Capitol attack.

Christie has said he has not spoken to Trump since before 6 January 2021, the day Trump sent supporters to the Capitol in a deadly attempt to stop the certification of his defeat by Biden.

But 14 days after the attack, on Trump’s last day in power, a 143-strong list of pardons and commutations included a name supported by Christie.

Alongside Trump allies Steve Bannon and Ken Kurson, and the rapper Lil Wayne, was George Gilmore, a lawyer and Republican party chair in Ocean county, New Jersey.

Gilmore was indicted on federal tax charges in January 2020. He denied wrongdoing, his attorney claiming his lavish spending on collectibles was evidence of a hoarding disorder. Nonetheless, Gilmore was sentenced to a year and a day in prison and three years of supervised release, a conviction upheld on appeal that December.

Gilmore avoided prison time. Announcing his pardon, the White House saluted his “important civic contributions over his career in New Jersey”. It also listed his supporters. The first two named were Christie and Bill Stepien.

Stepien managed Trump’s re-election campaign. Before that, he worked in New Jersey for Christie, including when Christie narrowly won in 2009 and during his landslide re-election in 2013.

By the time Christie left office, though, he and Stepien were under the shadow of the Bridgegate scandal, concerning political payback against a Democratic mayor.

Notably, Christie ran for president in 2016 but failed to make an impact. Swiftly endorsing Trump, he stuck with him even after being fired from Trump’s transition, which Christie says was due to bad blood with Jared Kushner, Trump’s son-in-law and adviser.

Chris Christie endorses Donald Trump for president

Stepien, Politico said, saw his own career threatened by Bridgegate but “kept a lifeline of income from the [Republican] super pac GOPAC, thanks to Gilmore’s help. That connection helped secure Gilmore the Trump pardon.”

Stepien also worked in the Trump White House. He is now a founding partner of a consultancy, National Public Affairs, whose website features Trump allies including Markwayne Mullin, an Oklahoma senator; Harriet Hageman, who defeated Liz Cheney in 2022 for her Wyoming House seat; and Ronny Jackson, a White House doctor turned Texas congressman.

In February, Politico described Gilmore’s own political resurrection, including a return as Ocean county Republican chair made possible, the site said, because Gilmore “had … a key connection to Trump world”.

Stepien told Politico that Gilmore would once again play a key role in elections in New Jersey: “One out of every seven votes will come out of Ocean county in the next statewide primary. So if you’re not spending time trying to build a relationship with George and his team, I have to question your strategy.”

Christie, who became an analyst for ABC and wrote two books, has made his political strategy clear: he is going to take the game to Trump.

Bookbinder said: “I think it’s a good thing that Christie is calling out Donald Trump on his role in inciting an insurrection and on his undercutting of democracy. For that to be coming from people who were insiders is powerful.

“That said, I think Chris Christie needs to answer for his [having been] someone who was close to Trump when Trump’s abuses were very much apparent, really from the beginning, and from before Donald Trump became president, and in carrying through to the end of the presidency.

“We don’t know when Christie made [or supported the pardon] request [for Gilmore]. It certainly may be that all contacts were before January 6, when Christie at least says that he cut off Trump completely. But we just don’t know the answer to that,” he added.

“And I think we should, because to the extent that he is saying he was outraged by Trump’s anti-democratic abuses and had nothing to do with them, that would not be consistent with continuing to ask for favours that might seem to go around the normal pardon process. And that’s something that I think it’s appropriate for the public to have answers to.”

The pardon power, Bookbinder said, is “meant to be broad, as a check on runaway prosecutorial power”. Pardons and acts of clemency as a president leaves office are common.

But Trump’s pardons proved as controversial as his presidency, amid reports of aides including Rudy Giuliani seeking to profit and with those pardoned including the likes of Bannon and Roger Stone, who might otherwise have testified against Trump.

Pointing to the need to lessen abuse of the pardon power, Bookbinder said: “You can’t see Donald Trump as an existential threat to democracy, which I believe he is, while also still having dealings with him and his circle. You can’t do both at once.

“And so it is reasonable to ask Chris Christie if that’s what he is doing, or if that’s what he has been doing – [if he has] a good answer to that. We should, at least, have a right to know that answer.”

A Christie spokesperson did not respond to a request for comment.

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