Longtime Chris Christie adviser Maria Comella, the gatekeeper and image-maker who became the most indispensable part of Christie's team in the governor's office before running his presidential campaign, said in a CNN interview Tuesday that she will vote for Hillary Clinton.
"Donald Trump has been a demagogue this whole time, preying on people's anxieties with loose information and salacious rhetoric, drumming up fear and hatred of the 'other,'" Comella said in the interview.
The admission was shocking because Christie has been Trump's most stalwart and prominent defender, refusing to criticize the candidate over statements that have drawn rebukes from other Republican supporters. When asked about Trump's attacks on the parents of a slain Muslim American soldier, Christie punted.
Ironically, Comella's views on Trump echo what Christie's critics have long said about the governor.
"Instead of trying anything remotely like unifying the country, we have a nominee who would rather pick fights because he views it as positive news coverage," she said. "It may make him media savvy, but it doesn't make him qualified or ready to be president."
Comella joined Christie's 2009 gubernatorial campaign and then went on to the governor's office in Trenton, where she was Christie's communications director and deputy chief of staff for 5 1/2 years. But her role was more prominent than her title would suggest, akin to that of Karl Rove for former President George W. Bush as she shaped the governor's profile within the state and beyond. She oversaw the town hall meetings, speeches and cable news appearances that rapidly made Christie a Republican superstar, and she grew Christie's taxpayer-funded communications office to include research analysts and a digital team that created slickly produced videos emailed to journalists and Republican operatives around the country. This turned Christie into the first YouTube governor -- critical to developing a national following.
Comella mandated her staff reach annual goals on increasing the governor’s Twitter followers and Facebook likes, internal documents show, while quietly cultivating his presidential bona fides.
But then the Bridgegate scandal broke on Jan. 8, 2014. She was on the phone with Christie when together they read the article revealing the smoking gun "time for some traffic problems in Fort Lee" email. The former aide who wrote it, Bridget Anne Kelly, also contacted Comella as the news was breaking. Comella, known for being so unflappable she could seem cold, ran damage control in the coming months as scandals enveloped the administration.
Comella later became the Christie presidential campaign's chief messaging officer, which was effectively the co-campaign manager. But the Bridgegate scandal had derailed the plan to model Christie's presidential campaign around his success in New Jersey growing the Republican tent, attracting Latinos with pro-immigrant policies and blacks with progressive positions on criminal justice reform.
Weakened, and with fewer donors backing them, the Christie brain trust recalibrated its plan, turning right on a number of positions and adopting a more traditional conservative campaign. The gambit failed and Christie lost, badly, to Trump.
Shortly after Christie's presidential campaign ended in February, Christie became the first prominent elected Republican in the country to endorse Trump and Comella announced that she was not returning to the statehouse with Christie.
Comella, 35, is a Republican who also worked for Trump-backers Rudy Giuliani, to whom she remains close, and Sarah Palin. She told CNN reporter Jamie Gangel that she did not inform the governor of her decision.
Despite private concern in the governor's inner circle about Christie's role as Trump's transition team chairman and one of the candidate's chief surrogates and defenders, Comella's announcement represents the most high-profile and personal refutation of the Trump endorsement that the governor has faced yet.
Since the Trump endorsement, Christie has been mocked in the press and turned into a meme-able laughing stock on social media, but until now no one close to Christie had publicly distanced themselves from the governor.
In backing Clinton, Comella cited Trump's disparaging remarks about people of color and blasted Republicans — like Christie, although he went unnamed — who are willing to do anything in the name of victory.
"Instead of speaking out against instances of bigotry, racism and inflammatory rhetoric whether it's been against women, immigrants or Muslims, we made a calculus that it was better to say nothing at all in the interest of politics and winning elections. For me, if our party has a future, we have to change that trajectory and lead by example," she said.
When Christie decided to endorse Trump, sources said that several advisers to the governor, including Comella, were caught unaware.
Comella has never sat for a television interview and rarely spoke on the record in representing Christie. True to form, her CNN interview was done over email.
"I've been contemplating whether to say anything publicly for awhile. When you are used to being behind the scenes and speaking for someone else it doesn't come naturally. For me, I think that it's a culmination of watching Donald Trump purposely play to our worst instincts and fanning those flames," she wrote. "We can't survive as a party if we don't try to elevate the conversation and lead. If those of us who believe that Donald Trump shouldn't be President don't say anything, we are just part of the same problem."