Chris Christie is feeling good again.
The New Jersey governor remains one of the country’s most unpopular executives, after a dismal year in which two allies were sentenced to prison, the state’s credit rating continued to drop, and his White House dreams were conspicuously dashed by Donald Trump.
But Christie, entering into his last eight months in office, often seems happier and more focused than at any point since the Bridgegate scandal broke, several people close to him say. He is again taking on an ambitious agenda in New Jersey, trying to buttress and shape his once-enviable legacy.
And he is enjoying significant influence in Trump’s world, spearheading a new national anti-addiction effort, talking to the president several times per week, and recently spending much of two days in the Oval Office advising Trump.
Christie has also rediscovered his fighting spirit back home. In recent weeks, the governor has made a show of taking on New Jersey’s biggest insurer, attacking its “multimillion-dollar mouthpieces, out there lying,” and has seemed to enjoy tussling with his old adversaries in the Trenton press corps. Christie has also reignited his feud with the state’s labor unions, by promising to enact new pension reforms and restructure the state’s school-funding system.
It’s unclear exactly what Christie is angling for, besides attempting to repair his public standing. One person familiar with his thinking said the governor plans to “go make some money” when he leaves office, but he’s clearly eager to keep other options open, possibly in Trump’s administration.
“I think he feels very good. I think he feels very good at serving out two full terms,” said Mike DuHaime, Christie’s longtime political strategist. “He’s always enjoyed being out there, being active.”
Just a few months ago, Christie appeared absent and embittered.
Despite an early endorsement of Trump, he was denied a spot as his running mate and was relegated to planning a transition that seemed unlikely to materialize, even to him.
He endured weeks of damaging testimony during the Bridgegate scandal, which cast him as a bully who exacted revenge on his political enemies, and led to the conviction of two allies on multiple counts of corruption. The governor seethed privately at what he saw as unfair criticisms during the trial, receiving several briefings each day as he debated how to fight back.
In November, three days after Trump’s surprise victory, Christie was unceremoniously dumped as head of the transition team, during a meeting with Steve Bannon, the president’s strategist, according to a person familiar with the meeting. He was subsequently passed over for attorney general — his desired job — in favor of Alabama Sen. Jeff Sessions. (Christie has since turned down other offers, like labor secretary, the person familiar with his thinking said.)
Christie’s awkward bid for national relevance further tanked his numbers in New Jersey and diminished his power in Trenton, where the governor barely pretended to be engaged with state issues.
In December, Christie pushed legislation — dubbed the “revenge bill” — that would have allowed the governor to profit from the sale of a book, while kneecapping the advertising revenue of the local newspapers that had become reliable critics of his administration. (New Jersey law currently prevents Christie from accepting outside income while in office.)
The measure, despite being paired with salary hikes for political employees, ultimately failed to pass.
But the fight seemed to re-energize the combative governor.
When Christie emerged in New Jersey on the last day of January, after avoiding reporters in his home state for 147 straight days, he seemed to delight in critiquing the rocky rollout of Trump’s executive order limiting immigration, which he blamed on some of the same staffers who had orchestrated his ouster from Trump’s transition team.
Christie told reporters Trump “deserved much better than the rollout he got” and that “unacceptable” mistakes were made by some of his inner circle.
Behind the scenes, the governor has maintained a direct line to the president.
He recently spent much of two days in the Oval Office, where Trump asked him about his administration’s performance and even dispatched him to see different White House officials and report back, according to a White House aide and one other person briefed on the conversations. He also frequently talks to a number of top aides in Trump’s orbit.
Christie had lunch with Jared Kushner in Washington two weeks ago, a remarkable turn of events given their bitter history. (As U.S. attorney, Christie prosecuted Kushner’s father for witness tampering, tax evasion and making illegal campaign contributions.)
Trump often calls Christie at night, one administration official said, and will sometimes tell aides what “Chris says” after their conversations. Trump respects Christie, one person close to both men say, because the governor doesn’t mince words — unlike some of the president’s aides.
He has begun convening current and former officials in his gubernatorial administration for large and long dinners in Washington, where they talk politics and reminisce about Trenton. He made peace with Maria Comella — a longtime, top aide who broke with him by endorsing Hillary Clinton — over a long dinner earlier this year, a person familiar with the meeting said.
Last month, Trump named Christie to head a commission that will look for ways to combat drug abuse in America — an issue that dovetails with Christie’s renewed interest in New Jersey.
In January, Christie dedicated his entire State of the State speech to combating opioid addiction and persuaded Democrats in Trenton, who have publicly delighted in Christie’s demise, to follow his lead on the issue.
Since then, Christie has been back on the offensive.
He has promised dramatic changes to the state’s pension system and its formula for funding schools, over the objections of his old enemies in organized labor. He has told others that he expects to score wins on pensions and drugs in New Jersey before he leaves office next year — often saying, “I’m not done yet,” according to one person who knows him well.
It’s unclear how far Christie can push with a record-low approval rating, which fell to 17 percent as he traveled the country for Trump, who remains deeply unpopular in New Jersey.
But even his rivals have noticed a new Christie in recent weeks.
“I guess you can see a bounce to his step,” said Vincent Prieto, the Assembly speaker, a Democrat who has battled with him. “I guess this is his last year — he’s trying to still make a difference and try to make the most of it.”’
Last week, the governor attacked United Airlines in two national TV interviews, calling the company “awful” and demanding that the Trump administration force the airline to stop overbooking flights.
“I talk to constituents in Jersey all the time who really, if you live in the northern part of the state, you have no choice but to fly United. And United uses that,” Christie said on Fox News. “They overbook, they have less planes, they make more money.”
That came a week after Christie said he was prepared to sue Amtrak to reimburse his state’s commuter transportation agency, NJ Transit, for capital work at Penn Station and along the Northeast Corridor.
He shrugged off his own history with United — one his friends and former top advisers had been convicted for accepting bribes from the company — and his 2010 decision to cancel a planned tunnel under the Hudson River, which might have alleviated some of the region’s transportation troubles.
In New Jersey, Christie is holding regular news conferences again, resuming his acerbic rapport with local reporters.
“Just cause you’re dumb enough to cover it doesn’t mean I’m going to be just as stupid and answer a question about it,” he told one reporter last week, when asked about a citizen complaint regarding his role in Bridgegate.
He has also targeted the state’s largest health insurance carrier, Horizon Blue Cross Blue Shield, demanding that the nonprofit hand over hundreds of millions of dollars of its own reserve funds to help pay for his anti-opioid efforts. He has openly derided Horizon executives, saying they earn exorbitant salaries at the expense of consumers.
“You can’t have it both ways, Horizon,” Christie said recently. “You can’t pay your executives huge, multimillion-dollar salaries. You can’t have them driven around in chauffeured cars. You can’t hire multimillion-dollar lobbyists, both in-house and outside lobbyists, to fight what your mission is supposed to be.”
The effort against Horizon has drawn condemnations from pro-business groups who previously regarded Christie as an ally.
Steve Forbes, the conservative publisher, said Christie has done the best job he could with a Democratic Legislature in a blue state — pointing to his success in securing a 2 percent cap on property taxes and the state’s improving employment picture — but said his attacks on Horizon must be based on “very bad advice.”
“It’s certainly not what a Republican should be doing,” Forbes said in an interview.
Christie declined an interview request for this story. A spokesman, Brian Murray, said the governor “has been very clear that he will not wrap up the final months of his second term quietly; that he will continue to forcefully do the job he was elected and reelected to do.”
People close to the governor expect him to travel across the state even more over the next eight months.
On Thursday, Christie appeared at an annual conference about prisoner re-entry with Jim McGreevey, the former Democratic governor, and Mike Tyson, the former heavyweight champion.
When McGreevey and Tyson offered a “salute” to Christie, the governor said that made it clear he was “getting ready to retire.”
“The one thing I don’t want a video like that to indicate is a victory lap,” Christie said at the event in Jersey City. “Because we haven’t had anywhere near a victory on what we need to do here.”
Katie Jennings contributed to this report.