WASHINGTON — The Trump administration named a close ally of Gov. Christie as the top federal prosecutor in New Jersey on Wednesday, appointing Craig Carpenito as the interim U.S. attorney in Newark.
Carpenito previously worked under Christie as an assistant U.S. attorney in that same office and later defended the governor in a citizen's complaint related to the George Washington Bridge lane-closure scandal. The move, however, was likely to heighten tensions with New Jersey's Democratic senators, neither of whom have backed the high-profile appointment. Neither Sen. Bob Menendez nor Sen. Cory Booker has met with Carpenito, according to a person familiar with the process.
Carpenito's allies accused the lawmakers of trying to stall the president's selection.
U.S. Attorney Jeff Sessions named Carpenito to the post, citing a law that allows for interim appointments in the event of extended vacancies. The appointment takes effect Friday, according to a release from New Jersey's U.S. Attorney's Office.
Carpenito can hold the post on an interim basis for up to 120 days, and could be nominated for the position permanently. He has long been seen as the leading candidate for the job, thanks in large part to Christie's backing.
"Craig is an outstanding lawyer and the type of decisive leader the office really needs," Christie, a former U.S. attorney, said in a statement Wednesday. "I am confident he will be a U.S. attorney that everyone in New Jersey will be proud of in the years ahead."
Carpenito and 16 other U.S. attorneys around the country were appointed Wednesday under a law that allows the administration to name an interim pick if a U.S. attorney position has been vacant for 300 days. The New Jersey position has been held by an acting U.S. attorney, William Fitzpatrick, for 299 days, dating back to early last year, when a slew of Obama administration holdovers were asked to resign, including New Jersey's Paul Fishman.
"You can't have an important position like that unfilled," said Bill Palatucci, one of Christie's top advisers. No one, he said, could question Carpenito's qualifications.
Carpenito is a partner at Alston & Bird LLP. He was an assistant U.S. attorney in New Jersey from 2005 to 2008, when Christie led the office.
Christie, who has been at various times a close Trump adviser, aggressively pushed Carpenito to land the job, enlisting New Jersey's Republican congressional delegation to write a letter to the president vouching for him. He had to overcome resistance from others, including Trump son-in-law and frequent Christie rival Jared Kushner, who wanted Geoffrey Berman for the post, according to several people with knowledge of the maneuvering.
Berman was named interim U.S. attorney for the Southern District of New York, one of the most high-profile prosecutor jobs in the country.
Over the summer there had been negotiations between the administration, Christie allies and New Jersey's Democratic senators over a slate of judicial and prosecutorial nominations. They never reached a deal, with each side blaming the other for unreasonable demands.
By tradition, senators can block federal nominees from their home states, but this move could help the Trump administration at least temporarily evade that roadblock. Neither Menendez nor Booker offered comments on Carpenito Wednesday.
Menendez still faces his own entanglement with the Justice Department, which is weighing whether to retry him on corruption charges after an initial trial last year resulted in a hung jury. The case is being led by prosecutors in Washington, not New Jersey, and so would not fall under Carpenito's jurisdiction.
Sessions, in a statement, praised Carpenito's experience in private practice, with the Securities and Exchange Commission, and as a prosecutor.
"He has successfully prosecuted white-collar criminals and fraudsters, and as interim United States Attorney for New Jersey, he will continue to put criminals out of business — and behind bars," Sessions said.