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Power, tension and the purge: Inside the Trump transition turmoil

Vice President-elect Mike Pence arrives at Trump Tower for meetings with President-elect Donald Trump November 15, 2016 in New York.
Timothy A. Clary | AFP | Getty Images
Vice President-elect Mike Pence arrives at Trump Tower for meetings with President-elect Donald Trump November 15, 2016 in New York.

The first signs of the splintering of Donald Trump's fledgling transition team began at a morning meeting in Trump Tower last Thursday, when the president-elect wasn't even in the building.

As Trump traveled to Washington to visit the White House and Capitol Hill, senior members of Trump's inner circle — including his children Ivanka, Donald Jr. and Eric — gathered to pore over a roster of candidates for cabinet-level and transition jobs. The list, meticulously compiled and green-lighted by transition chief Gov. Chris Christie, Trump loyalist Sen. Jeff Sessions of Alabama and Sessions' chief of staff, Rick Dearborn, was ready for signoff by Trump's team before presentation to the newly elected president.

The roster didn't survive the meeting.

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Even the guest list was scrambled early, sources with knowledge of the gathering told NBC News. Gens. Michael Flynn and Keith Kellogg, two close advisers to Trump, had not been invited but joined the group in progress anyway, with Flynn bearing instructions from Trump's son-in-law and consigliore, Jared Kushner, to exercise veto power over all national security decisions. Flynn, a former director of the Defense Intelligence Agency, crossed out a spate of candidates for national security and intelligence positions, including retired Marine General Peter Pace, retired Admiral William McRaven, retired Marine General James Mattis and former House Intelligence chairman Mike Rogers. All had been supported by Sessions and Christie.

Sources familiar with the sudden departures say Rogers was told by Dearborn that being brought into the transition by Christie was a factor in his abrupt dismissal from the transition team. Rogers had not worked with Christie before the transition effort. In addition to Rogers, Christie associates Kevin O'Connor and Bill Palatucci were dropped.

On Friday, the day after the meeting, Trump's campaign formally announced that Vice President-elect Mike Pence would replace Christie as the head of the transition team.

Flynn, whom sources confirm is a leading candidate for National Security Adviser, did not respond to a request for comment from NBC News. Through a spokesperson, Dearborn declined comment about his role but instead referred to Mike Rogers' statement about his departure. Rogers wrote that he is "pleased to hand off our work to my friend and former colleague, Vice President-elect Mike Pence."

The abrupt changes to onetime transition chief Christie's plans came only after Election Night, when the dawning realization of Trump's coming installation in the Oval Office surprised even the real estate mogul's most loyal fans. The Trump family had paid little attention to the transition efforts underway before the election, with Christie's team operating largely in its own orbit. But in the wake of the Republican's stunning victory last Tuesday, the attention of Trump's most intimate team members lurched towards the task of building the new administration, installing Kushner as the chief architect of the effort.

Insiders say that is where long-simmering tensions between the two men boiled over.

The history between Christie, Trump's earliest big-name endorser, and Kushner, who has fast become the most powerful gatekeeper to the president-elect, dates back more than a decade. In 2005, Christie, then U.S. attorney, prosecuted Jared Kushner's father, billionaire real estate developer Charles Kushner, for 18 counts of illegal campaign contributions, tax evasion and witness tampering. The elder Kushner served two years in prison. At that time, Christie and Donald Trump were already friends. Years later, Ivanka Trump would meet and marry Jared.

In the days since Christie's ouster from his transition post, rumors have bloomed about Kushner's grudge against the man whose work imprisoned his father. Some transition sources have pushed back on those reports, saying that Christie's ouster was related to dissatisfaction with his team's work and complaints about competency. (Other, however, suggest that it's worth noting that Sessions' influence does not appear to have waned along with Christie's.)

Another source told NBC News the Christie fallout largely stemmed from a perception he wasn't actively and vocally loyal enough during Trump's Access Hollywood tape controversy, and is now facing fallout from the perception he stayed on the sidelines.

Christie, once viewed as a possible VP pick, had also faced concerns during the summer's vice presidential search from Trump's children, who worried about his involvement in the Bridgegate scandal and believed that the GOP ticket needed geographic balance.

When asked about the Kushner- Christie dynamic, Trump transition officials responded that they would "not comment on specific relationships." But a spokesperson dismissed reports of internal friction as "ludicrous" and 'inside nonsense."

Still, perceptions about a personal grudge between the two men persist, even at the highest levels of Trump's team.

Last week, when asked about Christie getting a role in the administration, one senior Trump official merely laughed.

Kushner would never let it happen, the person said. Not after Christie's prosecution of Jared's father.