With Wednesday night’s Republican National Committee debate potentially the last one of the 2024 primary season, the criminally charged former president may have notched one key victory: avoiding getting filleted onstage by Chris Christie.
The former New Jersey governor created the most memorable moment of the 2016 Republican primary debates when he humiliated Florida Sen. Marco Rubio on a New Hampshire debate stage, and he had promised he would do the same to Trump.
But Donald Trump skipped all four of the contests without suffering in the polls, and the RNC has no current plans for a fifth debate ― meaning Christie might never get the chance to confront Trump about his Jan. 6 coup attempt, his failure to build a wall along the southern border or even his choice to knowingly infect Christie and others with COVID in late 2020.
Trump’s campaign staff did not respond to HuffPost queries. Top aide Chris LaCivita had previously told HuffPost that Trump does not spend any time at all worrying about Christie.
Christie has for months been arguing that Trump fears a face-to-face encounter with him.
“Obviously, he’s afraid. He’s afraid to get on the stage against people who are serious,” Christie said in a May radio interview with conservative host Hugh Hewitt.
A failure to host any further debates would break from the RNC’s pattern in 2016, when it held a total of 12, with seven taking place in the first three months of 2016 to coincide with voting in the early primaries and caucuses.
“Democracy demands transparency and accountability. Trump has avoided both, but not without the help of the GOP,” said Jennifer Horn, a former chair of the New Hampshire state Republican Party, who blamed RNC chair Ronna McDaniel for tacitly helping Trump.
“While avoiding the debate stage, where he could be confronted about his past crimes and dictatorial plans for the future, he’s been campaigning on a message of authoritarianism and the destruction of the Constitution. All the while, Ronna is out there expressing the support of the party for him, regardless,” Horn said.
Republican presidential candidate Chris Christie speaks at a town hall event in Manchester, New Hampshire, on Oct. 24. He has cast himself as the only Republican willing to directly take on former President Donald Trump and argues Trump will lose to President Joe Biden if he's the party's nominee.
An aide to McDaniel did not respond to HuffPost queries. But Henry Barbour, an RNC member from Mississippi, said if the RNC doesn’t host debates before the Iowa caucuses and New Hampshire primary in January, others certainly would.
“I think there is zero chance there won’t be more debates in January and February. The nomination is too important for that to happen,” he said.
In 2016, Rubio had been hoping to improve on his third-place Iowa finish in the New Hampshire primary. In the Feb. 6, 2016, debate, though, Christie brutally mocked him for repeating a memorized line about President Barack Obama wanting to weaken the United States.
“There it is. There it is. The memorized 25-second speech. There it is, everybody,” Christie said after Rubio repeated the line about Obama a third time in barely a minute.
Rubio instead finished fifth in New Hampshire. Christie dropped out of the race the day after the primary and endorsed Trump two weeks later, becoming Trump’s highest-profile supporter.
Christie continued backing Trump through his four years in office ― but then turned on him for lying about the 2020 election and then trying to overturn the result to remain in office despite having lost.
None of the moderators of the previous three debates has spent much time asking about Trump, who, despite facing 91 felony charges and decades in prison if convicted, has been the polling as the front-runner all year long.
Yet even when presented the opportunity to criticize Trump, the others on stage largely demurred. Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis’ biggest beef with Trump was apparently his decision to skip the debates. Former South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley’s harshest criticism concerned the trillions of dollars added to the national debt during Trump’s four years in the Oval Office.
Ohio businessman Vivek Ramaswamy, for his part, refused to criticize Trump at all, and instead repeatedly praised him and declared him the best president of the 21st century.
Even Christie, who made sure to ask for small-dollar donations during television appearances specifically because they would allow him to confront Trump on stage, did not dwell on Trump when he had the chance.
While he did say that Trump’s behavior leading up to and on Jan. 6, 2021, disqualified him from the presidency, he also wove in a separate argument that his criminal prosecutions made him unelectable in a general election.
“Whether or not you believe that the criminal charges are right or wrong, the conduct is beneath the office of president of the United States,” Christie said during the first debate in Milwaukee to a chorus of boos.
During the second debate at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library in Southern California, Christie likely diminished the seriousness of his criticism by arguing that Trump’s “ducking” of the debates had earned him the name “Donald Duck.”
Never once did he broach the story ― which he has recounted in media interviews and town halls ― of Trump’s decision to attend a debate prep session in September 2020, hours after testing positive for COVID. Trump did not tell Christie or anyone else in the room of the test result, and all but one wound up contracting the disease, with Christie ending up close to death in intensive care.
Wednesday night’s debate will take place in Tuscaloosa, Alabama, and will be carried live on News Nation, a new cable channel, starting at 7 p.m. Central time. Also on stage will be DeSantis, Haley and Ramaswamy, with other candidates having dropped out or failing to meet the polling and fundraising criteria.