In 2016, former New Jersey governor Chris Christie was one of 17 Republicans in a crowded field trying to beat Donald Trump. We all know how that movie ended. One of the hard-won lessons of the 2016 primary, especially among Republicans, was that it was foolish not to unite right away behind the strongest candidate. If they had done that, perhaps Trump wouldn’t have been the nominee and then the president.
Yet here we are in 2023, and we seem to be watching the same movie play out. There are 13 Republican candidates trying, once again, to outperform Trump in a crowded field.
One of those people, once again, is Chris Christie. But this time, he insists, he can write a new ending. Christie not only believes that he could win the nomination, but he believes he can win it by going toe-to-toe with Trump.
Christie’s brand is the brash, straight-talking Jersey guy, and he’s been living up to it. He’s been absolutely brutal in his attacks on the former president, calling Trump a “lonely, self-consumed, self-serving mirror hog,” a “bitter, angry man,” and “the cheapest SOB I’ve ever met.”
But don’t forget: Christie was the first establishment Republican—and the first of any of the Republican governors or senators—to endorse Donald Trump, which many say helped launch Trump to the nomination. During his presidency, Christie said things about Trump like, “He’s not only a strong leader, but a caring, genuine, and decent person” and “When he makes a promise, he keeps it.”
I asked Governor Christie to explain himself. Why did he support Trump twice and what finally led him to break ranks? I also asked him whether a rejection of the ex-president can resonate with a Republican base who doesn’t seem to have moved on from Trump or Trumpism. And: why does he want to be president of the United States in the first place?
Listen to our full conversation here, or read excerpts below:
In addition to Chris Christie, we’ve hosted presidential hopefuls Sen. Tim Scott, RFK Jr., Nikki Haley, and Marianne Williamson on Honestly. As the campaign heats up, we hope to have more candidates come on to defend their views and make their case to the American people.
On Christie’s anti-Trump strategy:
BW: Three weeks ago, you announced that you were running for president, making you one of 13 Republican candidates vying for the nomination. It’s still very early, but Trump is polling far and ahead of everyone else at 50 percent. DeSantis is next in line at something like 20 percent. And then everyone else, you included, are polling in the single digits. So it looks like the race is going to be a contest, like it was in 2016, of who can successfully challenge Trump. You are positioning yourself as the man for that job. Why do you think you are the person to do it?
CC: I think the first reason is who I am. I’m known for being very direct, very straightforward. I say exactly what I think. I don’t mince words. I governed in a very blue state as a Republican for eight years and got a lot of things done. I think that’s what the American people are hoping for: somebody who can go to Washington and get something done rather than have all the tumult and drama and incompetence that we’ve had over the last six and a half years.
I seem to be the only person on the Republican side who’s willing to take on Donald Trump directly. I don’t know how you beat somebody if you’re not willing to take them on. All these other people are waiting for some divine intervention. I’m from New Jersey. We don’t wait for divine intervention. We make things happen.
BW: Let’s talk about the criticism you’re going to get for hypocrisy, or maybe political opportunism. You famously endorsed Trump in 2016, well before a lot of leaders in your party. I want to read back to you some of the things you said about Trump in 2016. You said, “He’s rewriting the playbook of American politics because he’s providing strong leadership that isn’t dependent on the status quo.” You said Trump is “Someone who, when he makes a promise, he keeps it.” You called him “not only a strong leader, but a caring, genuine, and decent person.” You said he is a man “who judges people based on their performance, regardless of your gender, your race, your ethnic or religious background.” I could go on, but it honestly makes me uncomfortable.
BW: Looking back, how do you explain comments like those?
CC: I had concluded that he was going to be the nominee after the South Carolina primary no matter what, and I didn’t want Hillary Clinton to be president. My view was, given the relationship I had had with him over 15 years, which, those comments reflect the nature of our relationship during those years, I felt like he could make for a better candidate and a better president. I was wrong about that, but that’s what I felt at the time. That’s why I said what I said. I don’t have any regrets about it. I just turned out to be wrong.
On endorsing Trump:
BW: In 2016, you decided to endorse Trump. We then lived through the first term, which was more than enough for many Republicans to say, “I’m out.” But then comes 2020, and once again, you endorse him. Not only that, you helped him prepare for the debate. Why?
CC: Look, American politics isn’t about voting for who you want to vote for. It’s about voting for who’s left. I felt like Joe Biden was too old to be president. I didn’t agree with his policies and I didn’t think he’d be a good president, so I stayed with Donald Trump and I stayed with him until election night 2020, when he came out and said the election was stolen. It was that night on ABC that I broke from him and we haven’t really had a relationship since.
BW: Why was that the breaking point for you?
CC: Because to me, here was the president of the United States using the trappings that had been given to him by the people of this country to create doubt on the fairness of our democracy. And to me, that just went beyond anything that he had done or said before. That was when he jumped the shark for me, and I was done.
On how he intends to win:
BW: I’m not a psychologist, but if I had to put you on the couch, I would say this: You have real regrets about supporting him, and some would compare it to making a deal with the devil. You simply cannot abide living in a country in which this man becomes president of the United States again. So you’re the guy willing to throw himself on top of the grenade. Even though you’re currently polling in the single digits, it doesn’t matter to you because you’re going to do everything possible. Would you say that’s right?
CC: I think there are parts of it that are right. I came to the conclusion after his presidency that he could never be president again. One of the things I’ll disagree with you on: eight years ago Donald Trump was in the single digits. He was at 4 percent at the end of June of 2015. This is not just a mission for me to stop Donald Trump. It’s to stop Donald Trump in order to be president of the United States because I think I’m the best person in this race to be president. So, yes, I’m intent on stopping him, but that is not my goal solely and exclusively. It is also to win the Republican nomination and then beat Joe Biden in November of 2024.
BW: Trump thrives when he’s attacked. He seems to get stronger when people go after him. Mar-a-Lago is raided by the FBI; Trump’s numbers go up. He’s indicted in New York; numbers go up again. Stormy Daniels sheds light on the scandal on 60 Minutes; numbers among male voters go up. According to a poll released in April from NPR, 63 percent of Republicans say they want Trump to serve another term as president, even if he’s found guilty of a crime. Why do you believe that you can win over his voter base with criticism when criticizing him always seems to strengthen him?
CC: That’s criticism from people that Republicans view as natural enemies of theirs: the media, the punditry world. Donald Trump has never run in a primary where someone relentlessly—like a prosecutor laying out the facts—has gone after him. Also, I’m not a Never Trumper. I’m somebody who actually worked for him and helped him, and now I’m making these criticisms. That makes it a lot different. I could turn out to be wrong, but I don’t think I am. We’ve already tried not going after him. That hasn’t worked either, but the only way you find that out is in the midst of a campaign. And that’s what I’m going to do.
BW: One of the lessons of 2016 was that there were all these people duking it out and Trump still pulled ahead. Looking back, a lot of Republicans would say they should have united very quickly behind a Trump alternative in order to have the best chance of beating him. People are looking at a field now of 13 candidates and they’re worried. They believe they’re watching the same movie with a very bad ending. They believe that any candidate that’s not pulling in at least in the double digits should pull out and unify behind whoever the strongest horse is. What do you say to that argument?
CC: I don’t think we’ve determined who the strongest horse is yet. The campaign has barely started and I’ve only been in it for three weeks. Secondly, I think they’re going to be some moments here where people are naturally going to fall away. The first debate is in August and if you don’t qualify for the debate stage, it’s very hard to continue in the race. Then, if you don’t really catch fire in one of those debates, your fundraising is going to dry up and you may have to get out. I don’t think we’ll have anywhere near 13 people when we get to Iowa, New Hampshire, South Carolina, and Nevada. Things will consolidate by then. Also, someone may emerge who really catches people’s attention that we do all want to consolidate behind. If that happens, then I think the other candidates will look at that really strongly and see that perhaps it’s the right way to go. But there’s certainly nobody at this point who has shown themselves in these early parts to be a good enough, strong enough candidate that makes us all want to rally behind them.
On political corruption:
BW: You’ve said of the Trumps that “The grift from this family is breathtaking.” What is the most egregious grift in your mind?
CC: Well, $2 billion from the Saudis is breathtaking. Donald Trump sent Jared Kushner to the Middle East regularly to interact with the Saudis and other countries in the Middle East, and allowed him to act as a shadow Secretary of State in the same way that he acted as a shadow Chief of Staff. Then six months after he leaves the White House, magically he gets $2 billion from the Saudi sovereign wealth fund. I think we know there’s no magic there, and it certainly wasn’t because he’s a great real estate investor. Remember, he’s the one who bought 666 Fifth Avenue and nearly bankrupted his entire family.
The other grift that’s really bothering me right now is Trump taking money from middle-class Americans who think they’re supporting his campaign for president and then he’s using it, as a billionaire, to pay his own lawyers. It’s disgusting. But this is Donald. As I said, he’s the cheapest SOB I’ve ever met in my life. He’s just better at spending other people’s money than he is at spending his own. Frankly, this is why he went bankrupt three different times in New Jersey in the casino business. He would borrow other people’s money, run through it, and then not pay it back. In this instance, he’s taking money from middle-class people who are working hard and sending him $25, $50, $100 multiple times a year through his website. And then he has the audacity, while he’s sitting on billions of dollars of his own personal wealth, to not use that personal wealth to pay his personal legal fees. Instead, he uses the money of middle-class Americans to pay it off. That’s a grift.
BW: Let’s talk about Trump’s second indictment in Florida. This time it is much more serious for not only storing state secrets, but lying to the government about it. It’s an absolutely stunning case, and yet a lot of Republicans, including some smart ones, are saying, more or less, “This is evidence of a corrupt deep state that targets people on the right. Hillary wasn’t prosecuted. She did crimes, too.” How do you respond to that argument?
CC: I agree with them that Hillary should have been prosecuted. I said that at the time in 2016. It was a partisan decision. But that has absolutely nothing to do with Donald Trump’s conduct. He knowingly obstructed the government from getting the documents back. His excuse to Bret Baier was that he was too busy playing golf to be able to go through all the boxes and separate the documents from his golf shirts and golf pants. Does anybody in their right mind believe that? When he finally did turn over some of the documents—many of which he hid from his own lawyer so that his lawyer couldn’t turn them over—he said to his lawyer, “If there are any bad documents in there, just pick them out before you give them to the government.” That has nothing to do with Hillary Clinton.
You don’t fix a broken criminal justice system by giving someone else a pass. You fix a broken criminal justice system by making sure the next person doesn’t get a pass for political reasons or sympathy reasons. You enforce the law without fear or favor or partisanship.
BW: You’re basically saying two wrongs don’t make a right.
CC: Yeah. I think our parents taught us that, and I don’t think it’s very complicated.
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