He is Trump’s trusty New Zealander, his right-hand man, one of only a handful of advisers to have seen him through all four years of his presidency – not to mention, an “amazing friend” of the family.
But being among the last Trump staffers standing after the siege of the Capitol seems sure to limit Chris Liddell’s options as he oversees the presidential transition – and finds himself out of a job.
Liddell joined the Trump administration in 2017 with 30 years’ experience in senior leadership roles, including as chief financial officer at General Motors and Microsoft. He now serves as Trump’s assistant and deputy chief of staff for policy coordination.
With days to go in Trump’s presidency and mounting pressure for him and his inner circle to be held accountable over the siege of the Capitol, Liddell seems to be exploring his options for a return home to New Zealand.
Liddell – who gave his first ever televised interview to New Zealand media in November – has spoken to two journalists in the past week, telling them that he considered resigning in the wake of the attack on the Capitol in which five people died.
“I was horrified, like everyone else, by the events,” Liddell told Jonathan Milne at Newsroom. “… I’m intending to stay and try and do the right thing for the country. It is actually critical I keep my job for the next 12 days. This is an unbelievable, volatile situation.”
Liddell is also believed to have enlisted a public relations firm, Sweeney Vesty, to reach out to New Zealand media on his behalf – leading many to believe that he is laying the groundwork for a return.
Matthew Hooton, a conservative PR consultant who has been publicly critical of the Trump administration and Liddell for working within it, said he was contacted by a representative of Liddell to offer an interview on the evening of 6 January, Washington time – before the Capitol had been cleared of rioters.
“I am surprised that talking to me and other New Zealand writers was a priority for Mr Liddell at that time,” wrote Hooton in a public Facebook post last week.
He said Liddell also indicated to him on the phone that he would be returning to New Zealand after 20 January, and that he was concerned about his reputation.
Liddell was born in 1958 in the Waikato town of Matamata, the youngest of five, but grew up in Auckland and was later educated at Oxford University. He spent 10 years climbing the ranks at Credit Suisse First Boston, then at forestry company Carter Holt Harvey.
By 2010, when he was named New Zealand business leader of the year, he was already well established in the US. “I’ve always been prepared to take big risks with my career,” Liddell told the Herald at the time.
His American wife, Renee Harbers Liddell, who he married in 2011, is believed to have brought him into the Republican fold. The following year, Liddell served as the executive director of the transition planning team for Mitt Romney’s presidential campaign.
Stuart Stevens, a longtime Republican media strategist and now senior adviser to the Lincoln Project that opposed Trump’s re-election, told the Guardian he could not think more highly of “brilliant” Liddell. “I respect Chris. I would never have worked for Trump. But [I] respect his choices.”
Stevens said there were good people within Trump’s White House and that being a high-ranking government official was not, in and of itself, a negative: “I think who did what in administration matters.”
News of Liddell’s appointment by Trump in 2017 had been met with some enthusiasm from business and conservative commentators in New Zealand, who suggested he would use his proximity to power to advocate for the national interest.
There does seem to be grounds for Liddell’s argument that he is “crucial” to the presidential transition, with that team described as “one of the most organised parts of the White House” – in spite of Trump’s influence. Reports of weeks-long delays in the handover are likely to have less to do with Liddell than his boss.
But if Liddell had sought, in speaking to New Zealand journalists, to distance himself from the Trump presidency, his eleventh-hour commentary seems to have only highlighted his central role within it – as well as his unusual endurance, as one of the few non-family members to have stayed the course of all four years.
In 2018, Ivanka Trump called him her “amazing friend and colleague”. As recently as November, Liddell told Q+A’s Jack Tame that he had never considered resigning, though there had “of course” been times where he had disagreed with Trump’s decisions and he had “lost friends from being here”. (But, he added, “I haven’t lost my soul.”)
Kathryn Dunn Tenpas, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution tracking turnover in the Trump administration, said it was rare for White House staff to see through all four years of any presidency, with the turbulence under Trump making Liddell “even more of an exception”.
According to her analysis, the longest-serving Trump staffers were insiders such as Ivanka; “those who tell the president what he wants to hear”, such as Peter Navarro and Mark Meadows; and “those who oversee non-controversial issues”. “If you can stay out of the limelight, keep your head low and avoid making enemies, you have a good chance of hanging around.”
She did not know the specifics of Liddell’s role, or with whom he worked with most closely – but those “answers … might help explain how he has survived all four years”.
For some in New Zealand, the very fact of it is indictment enough. In the wake of Liddell’s interviews with Milne and the Herald’s Fran O’Sullivan, Wellington-based US political commentator Phil Quin started a call to “shun Liddell” on social media.
Quin told the Guardian Liddell had been seeking to present himself to journalists as a “public professional doing the best in a bad situation”, and that this misrepresented the “deeply and exclusively partisan, political” nature of working in the White House.
“Their job is not to be bureaucrats, their job is to tell bureaucrats what to do at the behest of the president, and in this case the president is Donald John Trump. Every step of the way, [Liddell] is complicit.”
Approached for comment by the Guardian, Liddell said: “I unconditionally condemn the attack on the Capitol and denounce the intention and acts of violence associated with it.
“My focus since the election has been, and remains, to ensure a peaceful and successful transition to the new administration.”
Quin said the social media backlash to Liddell’s apparent public relations drive had brought together people at both ends of the political spectrum against any expression of tolerance of fascism in New Zealand. “We do not want populist, right-wing politics to rear its head in this country in a meaningful way.”
The attack on the Capitol and Trump’s second impeachment has already led some of Liddell’s supporters to turn against him.
Having enthusiastically endorsed Trump’s nomination of Liddell for the position of secretary general of the OECD in November – when, perhaps tellingly, Liddell gave his first televised interview to New Zealand media – the leader of the opposition, Judith Collins, rescinded her support on Wednesday.
“The rioting that took place in the US Capitol was a disgraceful attack on democracy that has rightly tarnished those who incited and enabled the violence,” said the National leader in a statement to Radio New Zealand.
“Mr Liddell’s ties to the Trump administration cannot be overlooked here, making it difficult to see how he would be suitable to uphold the OECD’s strong commitment to democracy.”
The Act party also backtracked, with leader David Seymour saying Trump’s “unconscionable” role in inciting the Capitol Hill riots reflected on Liddell.
Ben Thomas, a political commentator based in Auckland, said the violent final chapter of Trump’s presidency was sure to limit Liddell’s options in New Zealand, should he return to work here.
“The sheer scale of what happened, the enormity of it, means that you’d think that it would be much harder to kind of shrug off as one of those experiences that you have overseas… Anything that he gets involved in is likely to be overshadowed by his proximity to Trump for the past four years.”
But what with Liddell’s reported nine-figure net worth and a luxury 17th-floor penthouse apartment in central Auckland, even Quin admits that New Zealand would not be an especially tough landing. He predicts Liddell is set for “a blissful and careful retirement”.