Inside the Hotel Jerome ballroom for an Aspen Ideas Festival interview on Monday night, Chris Christie spent a lot of time explaining why he still supports Donald Trump — while also going over some of the president’s missteps in detail.
Christie, a former U.S. prosecutor and moderate Republican who served as New Jersey’s governor for eight years beginning in 2010, enlivened the standing-room-only crowd with his straight-from-the-hip style. Told that on the previous night, former U.S. Rep. Paul Ryan wouldn’t take audience questions, Christie quipped, “He’s from Wisconsin. People from Jersey take questions.”
The audience got a hint of what was to come when interviewer Jeffrey Goldberg, editor-in-chief of The Atlantic, welcomed Christie to “the People’s Republic of Aspen, where people are so far to the left it’s almost [the] right.” He then warned listeners that the session would be “a lot like drive-time sports radio: There will be a lot of cursing.”
From there, it was almost all Christie for over an hour, and though he was brash, there wasn’t as much cursing as initially promised.
With his first question, Goldberg sought to find out “what Christie sees in Trump” that others fail to see. Christie said he’s known Trump for 17 years, adding that his perspective is broader than most people’s.
“Elections are not about who you want to vote for. Elections are about who’s left to vote for,” he said. “So to be clear, Donald Trump was not my first choice for president. I was.”
Christie recalled an event during which former NBA commissioner David Stern asked him when he was going to stand up to Trump. Christie pointed out that he was an early candidate for the Republican nomination during the 2015-16 presidential campaign season.
“I said, ‘I ran against him.’ The single biggest thing that you can do in a democracy to show that you are opposing someone is to run and to try to beat that person.”
Christie said it was apparent after the Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina primaries that Trump was going to secure the nomination. Christie recalled telling his wife that Trump would be the nominee, and “we can sit on the sidelines and do nothing … or we can try to make him better.”
Because of the way Trump and Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton approached issues, Christie said, he supported Trump.
“I would do the same thing today,” he said. “The post-election polls tell us that 20 percent of the people who voted didn’t like either one of them. … So, this was a very odd election, I went with my philosophical approach to it, which was, I agree more with him on issues than I agree with her on the issues. He’s not my first choice, I was, but he’s the guy who’s nominated … I’m with him.”
Goldberg pressed further, alluding to Trump’s offbeat behavior and actions since taking office in January 2017. He also noted that Christie was fired from Trump’s transition team.
“You know what kind of a rolling shit-show the whole hiring process was,” Goldberg said. “How can your opinion not change between the election and now?”
“Because he’s no different,” Christie replied. “People act shocked about the Tweeting and the outbursts, and the sense of entitlement. Hell man, I watched the campaign, that’s him. So he’s not changing.
“But what has happened from a Republican’s perspective is, we’ve had tax reform, we have less regulation, we have economic growth. He’s done things that Republicans want to see done in the country. I understand the Democrats don’t want that. But they lost.”
Trump and the Gold Star family
Goldberg brought up then-Gov. Christie’s 2011 nomination and support, in the face of pushback from conservatives and extremists, of a Muslim-American for a state judgeship.
He then asked Christie how he felt when Trump criticized the family of Humayun Khan, the U.S. Army officer who was killed in a 2015 suicide attack in Iraq. Khan’s family spoke out against Trump at the 2016 Democratic Convention, condemning the Republican nominee’s statements against Muslims.
“I absolutely think that what he did to that Gold Star family was wrong, and I told him that and I said it publicly,” Christie said. “And I was the one who was called in by [Trump’s] family when they couldn’t get him to stop talking about it, and said, ‘You’ve got to convince him to ‘knock this off.’
“Incredibly, [Trump son-in-law] Jared Kushner calls me, and says, ‘Listen, we need your help. He’s off the rails on this Khan stuff, and I think he’ll listen to you.’”
Christie recalled his visit to Trump Tower in New York City, just a few months before the 2016 election.
“I said to him, ‘I’m confused. … I thought we were running against Hillary Clinton.’ He said, ‘We are.’ I said, ‘Oh no, we’re running against the Khans. Because all you’re doing is talking about the Khans. And if we’re actually running against the Khans, I’m out, because we’re gonna lose then. And I have no interest in helping you lose.’”
Trump was adamant about how the Khans were being overly critical of him, Christie said. But Christie pointed out how the Khans did something no family wants to do: experience the death of a son who was serving the country.
“I said, ‘You know what that gives [Mr. Khan] permission to do?’ He said, ‘What?’ I said, ‘Whatever the hell he wants.’ After that conversation, you did not hear him talk about the Khans again.”
Christie said that’s been his approach with Trump all along. When he gets the opportunity to influence him, he does so, although there are always risks involved.
Goldberg said while it was “a lovely story,” the meeting didn’t change Trump fundamentally, and all Christie did was give Trump a “tactical out.”
“I didn’t give him a tactical out. I told him that he was wrong, and that those people had the right to say whatever they wanted to say. That’s not tactical, that’s the truth. I told him the truth, he heard the truth, and he stopped.
“I can’t change somebody who has been who they are for 73 years every minute of the day. But if I can change him in a positive way for an hour a day, that’s a positive.”
Reversal on Iran strike
Christie said Trump’s recent reversal of a decision to strike militarily against Iran last week, following the shooting of an unmanned U.S. drone, shows the president is capable of going beyond his first reaction.
“I’m not saying I agree with the policy,” Christie said. “I would have allowed the strike to go ahead if I was president. But I think it says something about him that he thought about it, and he changed his mind, and he was not scared to execute that no matter what anybody thought.
“That’s growth. That’s growth for anybody in a leadership position.”
During the question-and-answer session, Christie decried the fact that Americans have become so polarized politically. As a governor, Christie received support from many prominent Democratic leaders in New Jersey.
He said it’s a shame that those on both sides of the political aisle aren’t as willing to listen to each other and respect differing opinions as they did a few decades ago.
Today, he said, those who are deeply involved in politics are quick to look at what Trump or the Democratic leaders are doing and think the nation is falling apart.
“There is not a place in this world where there aren’t people who want to come here,” Christie said. “And there’s a reason for that, and it’s not just economic. I believe we’ve got the greatest thing going in the whole world. It doesn’t mean that it can’t be better.”
Christie has authored a book, released in January, titled “Let Me Finish: Trump, the Kushners, Bannon, New Jersey and the Power of In-Your-Face Politics.” Signed copies of the book were on sale outside the Jerome ballroom.