WASHINGTON/March 29, 2017 (AP)(STL.News) — After being unceremoniously dropped from President Donald Trump’s transition team, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie is dipping his toes into the administration as he takes the lead of a White House commission to combat drug addiction.
Christie was at the White House Tuesday, meeting with members of the administration in preparation for the commission rollout. On Wednesday morning, he and President Trump will host an opioid and drug abuse listening session at the White House to formally kick off the effort.
It’s a familiar setting for the governor, who has made fighting heroin and prescription drug abuse a centerpiece of his administration.
He spoke extensively about the issue during his own presidential bid and has dedicated his final year in office to addressing the drug crisis. Last month, he signed legislation that limits first-time opioid prescriptions to five days’ worth of drugs and requires state-regulated health insurers to cover at least six months of substance abuse treatment.
Christie told The Associated Press that he has “no interest in having a permanent role” in the Trump administration at this time, but that the president asked him to spearhead efforts to combat opioid and drug abuse as he completes his term as governor.
“He asked me to help with this and I’m going to,” Christie said. “It’s an issue that I care about a lot in New Jersey and for the country and so the president asked me to do this and I was happy to.”
Christie has been friends with Trump for years and has been working behind the scenes with the White House on the issue for months, discussing it with aides including Kellyanne Conway, a fellow New Jersey native, and the president. The commission is being rolled out as part of a new office led by Trump’s son-in-law and top adviser Jared Kushner, whose father Christie prosecuted in his former role as U.S. attorney.
Christie, who had lunch with Kushner Tuesday as part of his discussions about the administration’s policy, downplayed reports of tensions between the two.
“It was great,” Christie said. “We are talking about the opioid issue because it’s one of the things that’s going to be overseen out of his department and so we had a good lunch and a good opportunity to lay out what we need to do and what our goals are.”
Christie’s history with drug policy dates to his first elected position in county government more than 20 years ago. The issue became personal more than a decade later, when one of Christie’s best friends from law school developed an addiction to prescription drugs and died of an overdose in a New Jersey motel.
Christie’s position leading the commission is a volunteer one, and he has long maintained that he plans to complete his term as governor before moving to the private sector. Nonetheless, people close to him say that he is open to potentially joining the administration once his term ends.
Christie’s last visit to the White House stoked speculation. After he and his wife, Mary Pat, had lunch with Trump in February, Christie was bombarded with questions at home about his intentions.
“Let me be very clear, we did not get into any discussion of me joining the current administration in some type of drug abuse role, some type of czar or God forbid surgeon general,” he said then.
The focus on the drug issue also gives Christie a chance to try to move past negative headlines that have helped fuel his unpopularity in New Jersey.
As Christie is appearing at the White House, two former aides are scheduled to be sentenced for their roles in the 2013 George Washington Bridge lane-closing scandal. Bridget Kelly and Bill Baroni were convicted last November on counts including wire fraud, conspiracy and misusing the bridge for improper purposes.
The scandal derailed Christie’s presidential aspirations and may have cost him a chance to be then-GOP nominee Trump’s running mate — a role Christie openly courted. He was later named chair of Trump’s transition effort, but was booted after Trump won the election due to internal disagreements about the transition’s direction and replaced by now-Vice President Mike Pence.
JILL COLVIN, Associated Press
VIVIAN SALAMA, Associated Press
Josh Cornfield contributed to this report from Trenton, New Jersey.