New Jersey Governor Chris Christie, the semi-resurgent candidate for the Republican presidential nomination, came to Washington last week to address members of the Council on Foreign Relations (the organization known, at least to Senator Ted Cruz, as the “pit of vipers”). I caught up with Christie shortly before his speech for an extensive conversation about Iran, ISIS, the travails of the American Muslim community, and the nuances of ball-breaking. More on all four topics in a moment. Especially the last one.

I hadn’t seen Christie in a while, though he would occasionally text me from the trail: “Driving through Des Moines with Maria, listening to her favorite song ‘Drive all Night’ on E Street Radio,” he wrote in September. “This is livin’!” I awarded this particular text message three Pinocchios, because what he was describing could not, in fact, be called “livin’!” On the other hand, I do know that Maria Comella, Christie’s adviser, has, in the past, implausibly asserted that “Drive All Night,” which is pretty much no one’s favorite Springsteen song, is indeed her favorite Springsteen song. (“I swear I’ll drive all night just to buy you some shoes,” is substandard Boss.)

Christie and I are both middle-aged bridge-and-tunnel ethnics who share a Bruce obsession (I’ve written about Christie’s emotionally agonizing relationship with Springsteen before), and so, as you will see in the conversation below, we address each other with a kind of amiable contempt that is born of intense tribal familiarity. (Christie, as I have noted in the past, is the Placido Domingo of contempt. I am merely the Mario Lanza.)

One thing I had noticed, in past encounters with Christie, is that he was far from fluent on matters related to foreign policy. This was to be expected, because New Jersey doesn’t have a foreign policy that extends beyond mandatory gubernatorial expressions of affection for Ireland, Italy, and Israel. (Like almost everything else I asserted in our interview, Christie objected to this observation: Invoking the name of his cross-river adversary, he told me that as governor of New Jersey, “you have to deal with Bill de Blasio everyday. That’s foreign policy.”)

Christie has apparently become a diligent foreign-policy student, however (he claims Henry Kissinger as his most influential tutor), because he spoke about the Middle East morass in an assured and informed way, even though I disagreed with many of his conclusions. All of this study is helping him seem like a more plausible candidate than he once seemed, though it is his assertiveness and pugnacity that serve him especially well in moments of national nervousness. Christie is well-positioned to be the break-glass-in-case-of-emergency candidate—his experience in crisis management (it was his leadership when Hurricane Sandy hit that truly made him a national figure), and his years as a federal prosecutor in post-9/11 New Jersey, have drawn the approving attention of the Manchester Union-Leader, which recently endorsed him; George Will; and other influential Republicans looking for a plausible alternative to Donald Trump.

Christie’s biggest immediate challenge isn’t Donald Trump, though, but Senator Marco Rubio, who currently occupies the same nomination lane as Christie.  When I answered a question Christie posed to me—who will be president, if not him—by mentioning Hillary Clinton, Ted Cruz, and Marco Rubio, he honed in on Rubio’s name, saying, “There’s not a lot of depth there.”

Something that separates Christie from much of the rest of the field, apart from executive experience, is his relatively nuanced (especially compared to Trump) approach to issues concerning American Muslims. One of his finest moments as governor came when he nominated, over the objections of bigots, a Muslim American for a Superior Court judgeship, and excoriated the judge’s critics when they made specious arguments against the nomination. And he has been intermittently forthright in denouncing Donald Trump’s prejudiced idiocies.

So I was surprised a couple of weeks ago, when, in reaction to a question from the conservative commentator Hugh Hewitt concerning Syrian refugees, Christie said that he would not, as president, allow the admission of even 5-year-old Syrian orphans. I asked him about this first thing in the interview. Here is a bit of our exchange:

Goldberg: What’s with the orphans, what the hell was that all about? It didn’t sound like you.

Christie: Listen, you know what, it was a question. He asked me a question.

Goldberg: Fine, but why wouldn’t you want to take in some cute little 5-year-old orphans?

Christie: Because who’s going to take care of the cute little 5-year-old orphans?

Goldberg: They’d get adopted!

Christie: Yeah, really? Based on what, exactly?

Goldberg: Based on the fact that people adopt orphans!

Christie: Let’s see the history of that. Listen, the fact is, when the FBI director goes to Congress and says we can’t track these people, that’s the end of the conversation for me.

Goldberg: Okay, but little kids? I just watched that video, you talking about drug abuse, the eight-million hit video of you, which is unbelievable—I don’t know what you want to call it, compassionate conservatism, it was all there—

Christie: It’s still here! The guy asked me a question and I was being consistent! No refugees until we can vet them.

The tone of this dialogue, by the way, is representative of most of our conversation. (As you can tell, I’m trying to bait you into reading all the way through.)

I went on to note that Christie is in danger of losing the sympathy of a Muslim community he has heretofore treated with respect. To which he responded: “These folks are Americans and they’re going to say that they’re at as much risk as anyone else. They’re going to want to help. This is what happened post-9/11. After 9/11 we were getting more intel out of mosques than anywhere else, from mainstream members of mosques. I had a guy say to me, flat-out, that I’m going to help you, you know why? Because if another Muslim attacks Americans, I’m going to get shipped out of this country.”

On broad strategic issues, Christie takes positions that are sometimes heterodox, but often within the Republican mainstream. When I asked him what his first national-security priority would be if he were to win the presidency, he said, “Iran is a greater threat than ISIS. If you’re prioritizing the threats, which a president has to do, then I think that Iran is a greater threat than ISIS.” He went on to explain, “I believe Iran is moving toward obtaining a nuclear weapon. I have no proof at this point that ISIS is moving toward obtaining weapons of mass destruction.” We got mad at each other over this one, as you will see below.

Christie also refused to rule out the use of torture in the fight against Islamist extremism—though he objected to my use of the word to describe one of the techniques President Obama has banned:

Goldberg: Think back to around 2005, 2006. You remember what it felt like when Americans started feeling some regrets about certain steps we were taking in the War on Terror, including Iraq, Guantanamo Bay, torture—

Christie: I don’t agree with that last part.

Goldberg: Torture?

Christie: Guantanamo Bay, and that you are characterizing something as torture. But that’s fine.

Goldberg: When you hold someone down and make them feel that they’re drowning, that’s not torture?

Christie: I think there are enhanced interrogation techniques that are appropriate at times, yes.

Christie spent much of the time critiquing President Obama’s foreign policy—from his seeming reluctance to call for the invocation of NATO’s Article 5 (the treaty mechanism that allows for collective defense) after the Islamic State attacks in Paris; and the President’s statement concerning the “red line” in Syria:

Goldberg: Do you think you would have known in 2011, 2012, if you were president, at the beginning of the Syrian civil war, that this is the way it would have gone. People always say they knew intervention would work, but isn’t this impossible to know?

Christie: Except here’s the problem, I don’t know if I would have known. But if I had drawn a red line in Syria, if I opened my big mouth and said, by the way, if Assad uses chemical weapons, I’m going to take him out—

Goldberg: Obama didn’t say that he would “take him out” in response to the use of chemical weapons. You would have taken him out?

Christie: Excuse me. The president said if [Assad] starts using chemical weapons against his people, that’s a red line that he shouldn’t have crossed, and then the Americans will take action.

Goldberg: He didn’t say “take him out.” So you think he should have overthrown Assad?

Christie: He should have kept his word. I don’t think under any interpretation we could say that the president kept his word.

Goldberg: He got rid of most of the chemical weapons, through the Russian deal.

Christie: And he invited the Russians into Syria.

Goldberg: The Russians have been in Syria for 50 years!

Christie: He invited them in a much different way. They haven’t been here the way they are now there in 50 years, right? My point to you, the word of the American president means something, so in 2011, I don’t know whether I would have looked into the crystal ball and the people around me would have looked into the crystal ball and known what we know now. But if I had gone out and said that if he uses chemical weapons, that’s a red line and we’re going to act, I would have acted. No one believes by “acting” he meant he was going to call in the Russians to negotiate a deal for him. I guarantee that he didn’t mean it. The problem is that words matter, actions matter, especially when they come from an American president.

The real value-added in this conversation, I think, comes during our discussion of ball-breaking, a practice that would inevitably be a feature of a Christie presidency. The governor accused me of committing this crime against (his) humanity late in our conversation:

Goldberg: What are you going to say to the Council on Foreign Relations today?

Christie: Same stuff I’m talking about with you.

Goldberg: Yeah, but don’t say it so colorfully.

Christie: No one will break my balls like you do.

Goldberg: I don’t break your balls. This is nothing.

Christie: This is ball-breaking.

Goldberg: You’re a prosecutor from New Jersey and you think this is ball-breaking? Pathetic.

Christie: You think I mean ball-breaking being painful?

Goldberg: Oh, you mean—

Christie: —This is ball-breaking!

Goldberg: The good ball-breaking.

Christie: Yeah, ball-breaking like where we come from. With a smile on your face.

Goldberg: Alright, that’s better.

Here is a transcript of our conversation. I’ve edited it for clarity, concision and cursing (mostly mine).


Jeffrey Goldberg: What’s with the orphans, what the hell was that all about? It didn’t sound like you.

Governor Chris Christie: Listen, you know what, it was a question. He asked me a question.

Goldberg: Fine, but why wouldn’t you want to take in some cute little 5-year-old orphans?

Christie: Because who’s going to take care of the cute little 5-year-old orphans?

Goldberg: They’d get adopted!

Christie: Yeah, really? Based on what, exactly?

Goldberg: Based on the fact that people adopt orphans!

Christie: Let’s see the history of that. Listen, the fact is, when the FBI director goes to Congress and says we can’t track these people, that’s the end of the conversation for me.

Goldberg: Okay, but little kids? I just watched that video, you talking about drug abuse, the eight-million hit video of you, which is unbelievable—I don’t know what you want to call it, compassionate conservatism, it was all there—

Christie: It’s still here! The guy asked me a question and I was being consistent! No refugees until we can vet them.

Goldberg: Can you explain to me what’s going on in the Republican Party? I’m not a soft-on-terrorism kind of guy but what I don’t get is that the people who did this thing in Paris weren’t Syrians, they weren’t refugees, so how did this become an issue we were all talking about?

Christie: Part of it is the distrust of the administration. The president had a conference call with the governors and we said, “If you’re placing these people in our states, it would be nice to tell us.” But he wouldn’t commit to it. It’s a strategy on the White House’s part not to tell us. They don’t want to tell us. And the president wouldn’t commit to it. He said, “I’ll think about it.” So part of what’s going on here is distrust of the overall strategy, so anything they propose is going to be suspect.

Goldberg: So you’re saying that if you in good faith felt like there was a handle on this—

Christie: This is where [FBI Director James] Comey’s comment about vetting becomes key. For me, I would tell you, if Jim Comey told me that we could vet these folks, then we’re talking about something else.

Goldberg: Why are so many Republicans exploiting fear of mainstream—

Christie: Jeff, no one can tell me these are mainstream Muslims—

Goldberg: I’m not talking about the Syrian refugees; I’m talking about millions of Muslims who live here. They’re going to get alienated—

Christie: Oh, stop. Please. They’re not that sensitive, okay?

Goldberg: Maybe not in Jersey.

Christie: Where are you talking about, then? In Nebraska? Where are we talking about?

Goldberg: I notice you didn’t say Iowa.

Christie: Well, I’m not stupid. Here’s the thing—I’ve done this. I’ve interacted over all these years with a large Muslim community in my state. They’re not sensitive.

Goldberg: In other words, they’re not going to go into terrorism because you said something—

Christie: These folks are Americans and they’re going to say that they’re at as much risk as anyone else. They’re going to want to help. This is what happened post-9/11. After 9/11 we were getting more intel out of mosques than anywhere else, from mainstream members of mosques. I had a guy say to me, flat-out, that I’m going to help you, you know why? Because if another Muslim attacks Americans, I’m going to get shipped out of this country.

Goldberg: Is that true? Do you think there was a chance people would have been shipped out?

Christie: No, I don’t think so, but there is a motivation on the part of the American Muslim community, a law-abiding, mainstream community to say, “We know how easy it is to get painted by the same brush, and we’re going to try to help you make sure another attack doesn’t happen.” The president set up some straw men to justify his position, which is an indefensible position. You’re letting in people to the U.S. that your own FBI director says he can’t vet? That’s an indefensible position. I say, fix the problem. Vet the people who want to come in. Keep them out until they can be vetted. And, by the way, set up a safe zone and keep them there.

Goldberg: Okay, President Christie, how do you set up a safe zone in Syria?

Christie: Listen, you can use NATO troops, including American troops and a no-fly zone and set up a safe zone in Syria.

Goldberg: That’s all-in, that’s war.

Christie: Do you think we’re at war or don’t you?

Goldberg: Yes, we’re at war with ISIS.

Christie: So what are we talking about? The number of angels on the head of a pin?

Goldberg: No, we’re talking about 50 troops vs. 30,000.

Christie: I’m saying, stop trying to kid the American people.

Goldberg: That’s what going on?

Christie: Yes!

Goldberg: What is ISIS?

Christie: ISIS is a religious-political movement that is about imposing their perspective on how religion should be practiced in this world on everybody else. That’s what it is.

Goldberg: Where does it come from?

Christie: I think there are a bunch of contributing factors. First, this situation in Iraq contributed to this. I think that Assad’s conduct in Syria contributed mightily to this, and I think that the general tone in the world for these folks is that now is the appropriate time for them to have their moment and they’re trying to have it. And I think the president sees the world as he wants to see it. He believes if we’re just nice to folks this will all get straightened out.

Goldberg: What makes you think we can impose order on the chaos in Iraq and Syria with a no-fly zone? ISIS doesn’t have planes—who are you shooting down?

Christie: I don’t know that we can impose order on Syria, but I do know that there is such drastic chaos there that is disrupting the whole world. So what should we do? Let’s just sit back, bring all kinds of refugees to Europe, let’s let Jordan take in another 300,000, 400,000. That’s the answer?

Goldberg: Obama’s actually taking shots at ISIS guys every week.

Christie: He handed over ISIS targets to the French, right?

Goldberg: So?

Christie: So, excuse me? Why weren’t we doing that ourselves?

Goldberg: What’s wrong with the French? Aren’t they our allies? Are they incompetent?

Christie: I didn’t know that the French were now the leaders of NATO.

Goldberg: Why do we have to be the indispensable nation in this fight?

Christie: If you’re Barack Obama you don’t have to be indispensable. I don’t think he thinks we’re indispensable.

Goldberg: What’s wrong with empowering other countries to do this fighting as well?

Christie: We shouldn’t be the country that leads from behind. I never thought I’d live long enough to hear the deputy national security adviser [Benjamin Rhodes] say about Article 5, he was asked, what’s the administration’s position on the invocation of Article 5, and he said, we’re going to wait to see what the French do.

Goldberg: Wait a second—it was an attack on France!

Christie: Does America have an opinion, or don’t we?

Goldberg: He said we want to see what the French do.

Christie: That’s an abdication of American responsibility. Yes, France can invoke Article 5. So what’s the American opinion? What’s Obama whispering in Hollande’s ear, invoke or not invoke? What do you think? I’ll tell you what I think. He said, don’t invoke. Let me tell you something—if Hollande was going to put a coal-burning power plant up, Barack Obama would be all over it. That’s the difference. His priorities are climate change. He thinks that this is what we need American leadership on.

Goldberg: And you don’t.

Christie: Hell no! I think there’s a lot more important things to worry about. I’ll guarantee you this—the 220,000, 230,000 dead Syrians aren’t worried about climate change.

Goldberg: Wait, what? All of a sudden you’re a liberal interventionist, you’re going to save Syrians from other Syrians?

Christie: That’s not what I said.

Goldberg: No, no, no, let me give you the formula you’re giving me—

Christie: —You can keep switching topics on me—

Goldberg: —You just switched—

Christie: —We’re talking about Article 5.

Goldberg: You just invoked the Syrian dead and climate change.

Christie: The president thinks that climate change is what we should be leading the world on, and my view is that the 230,000 dead Syrians ain’t worried about climate change. Forget about whether we could have saved them or not, they’re not worried about climate change, man. Nor are the people who are running to Jordan or to Europe—

Goldberg: You just brought up climate change again. Whatever. Step back for a minute because I’m not going to go in circles here. Think back to around 2005, 2006. You remember what it felt like when Americans started feeling some regrets about certain steps we were taking in the War on Terror, including Iraq, Guantanamo Bay, torture—

Christie: I don’t agree with that last part.

Goldberg: Torture?

Christie: Guantanamo Bay, and that you are characterizing something as torture. But that’s fine.

Goldberg: When you hold someone down and make them feel that they’re drowning, that’s not torture?

Christie: I think there are enhanced interrogation techniques that are appropriate at times, yes.

Goldberg: Put this aside for a minute because I don’t want to go down that alley yet.

Christie: You’re the one who brought up alleys. I didn’t bring up the alley, you’re the one who brought up the alley. You went through this laundry list, and by my sitting here and assenting to this laundry list I don’t want you to think that I agree with everything you say!

Goldberg: Duly noted, your honor.

Christie: Objection overruled.

Goldberg: I think we need to have Bruce come in here and yell at you. He’d get mad at you about climate change, undoubtedly.

Christie: Undoubtedly.

Goldberg: Maybe he doesn’t care, what do I know?

Christie: Oh, he does, he does!

Goldberg: Probably does. He’s an organic farmer.

Christie: Farmer my ass—to get lower property taxes in New Jersey he’s a farmer.

Goldberg: No, he grows food!

Christie: You know why he grows food?

Goldberg: Why?

Christie: To get lower property taxes!

Goldberg: God, how can you doubt your hero?

Christie: I’m not doubtful about his music.

Goldberg: Okay, back to the sine curve. We go through a period of high emotion, naturally, after an attack like 9/11, and then we go, “Oh, man, what did we just do?” And then we think about our reactions to terrorism. So I’m asking you, what lessons have you learned from our reactions to 9/11? You want to put thousands of troops into a chaotic civil war, an unwinnable civil war—

Christie: We’re losing now. The problem now is that ISIS left unbattled there will come here.

Goldberg: You think we’re as vulnerable as Europe?

Christie: Not yet, but we’re vulnerable. Go to New York, walk around Rockefeller Center. Five guys with AK-47s could bring that city to its knees in 15 minutes. 15 minutes! And so my point to you is, are we as vulnerable? Maybe not quite as vulnerable as Europe. But we’re not far off. What I make of the sine curve is this: Iraq was a mistake. Iraq was a mistake based on bad intelligence. I don’t think George W. Bush goes into Iraq if he were told that there were no weapons of mass destruction. But who knows? Only he knows. In the beginning, I remember the argument, the argument that they’ve got WMD that they can use them themselves because they’ve done it before, and/or they could give it to terrorists for their use. We can’t permit this to happen. Once WMD doesn’t show up, you had a bad decision based on bad intel.

But I don’t think that it follows that the American people thought that this was an overreaction. If WMD was there, it would have been a whole different ballgame. You find warehouses full of WMDs, then all of a sudden all of the American people go, “Good job.” So my point is, when I look at the sine curve, what I see is American forgetfulness. What drives that curve just as much as what you posit is American forgetfulness. We go four or five years without an attack, we say, it’s not so bad. We get upset at the government for taking steps that prevented an attack for the previous four or five years.

Goldberg: That’s human nature.

Christie: Leaders can’t give into human nature. We have to lead.

Goldberg: I want to understand what you would do January 21, 2017, assuming things then are more or less the way they are now.

Christie: There are a lot of different things you have to do. I don’t even know that Syria is the first priority. To me, Iran is the first priority.

Goldberg: Iran?

Christie: Sure. You do a few things with Iran at the beginning.

Goldberg: We have a Sunni jihadism problem, though. Those AK-47s in Rockefeller Center aren’t going to be wielded by Iranian Shi’a.

Christie: Do you want to let me answer or do you want to debunk my answer before I give it?

Goldberg: Do I have to pick?

Christie: You don’t have to because you’re Jeff Goldberg, but here’s the thing, you’re assuming that when I said Iran I’m connecting Iran to the problem we’re just talking about. You asked me what am I going to do on January 21st. Iran is a greater threat than ISIS. If you’re prioritizing the threats, which a president has to do, then I think that Iran is a greater threat than ISIS?

Goldberg: Why?

Christie: Why? Because I believe Iran is moving toward obtaining a nuclear weapon. I have no proof at this point that ISIS is moving toward obtaining weapons of mass destruction.

Goldberg: Iran is going to be doing a lot of things, sending out its uranium, according to the agreement.

Christie: You really believe that?

Goldberg: For a while I think we’re okay, for the next few years. I don’t think we’re okay for a few days with the Sunni jihadist problem.

Christie: I don’t know that I agree.

Goldberg: So what would you do, rip up the nuclear agreement?

Christie: I’ve never said that. My point would be, you have to make a few statements of principle off the bat. The first is that, we’re not going to make any more agreements or have meetings with folks who won’t recognize Israel’s right to exist.

Goldberg: What does that have to do with anything?

Christie: It creates even more unrest—

Goldberg: Such a big Jew over here now.

Christie: It creates more instability and more unrest in the region when you don’t stand by your only real ally in the region.

Goldberg: Fine, stand by Israel. You stand by your ally by protecting them from Iran. But how do you force Iran to recognize Israel when it’s a pillar of their ideology to oppose Israel’s existence?

Christie: It’s a pillar of their illegitimate—

Goldberg: Why don’t you just ask them to convert to Catholicism while you’re at it?

Christie: I have no interest in having more Catholics.

Goldberg: They’re your natural voting base.

Christie: I’m one of them. But unlike the jihadists, I’m not looking to impose my religion on anyone else. If you want to be Catholic, I’m more than happy to have you.

Goldberg: My point is, this argument about recognizing Israel is only used as a way to defeat the idea of any agreement with Iran, to demand of them something that they’re just not going to do.

Christie: Do they want to be in the civilized world or don’t they? That’s the question.

Goldberg: You’re going to be talking in a few minutes to an elite foreign-policy crowd that generally believes that removing from Iran the possibility for a decade or more that they will be able to develop nuclear weapons is a good deal, precisely because they’re crazy and so at least they won’t have an unconventional capability.

Christie: First of all, do you think I’m speaking to them?

Goldberg: Okay, you’ll be speaking over them to the people of New Hampshire.

Christie: I’m not designing my foreign policy to please the Council on Foreign Relations. They can like it or not like it.

Goldberg: Who are your teachers on foreign policy? I mean, New Jersey doesn’t have a foreign policy, except that you have to like Ireland, Italy, and Israel.

Christie: You have to deal with Bill de Blasio everyday—that’s foreign policy.

Goldberg: Thank you, ladies and gentlemen, he’ll be here all week.

Christie: Tip your waitresses.

Goldberg: You’re like a Tweet machine.

Christie: The person I try to talk to the most is Kissinger. We meet once a month, every six weeks, going back 18 months. Brian Hook, I spend a lot of time with him, and with Eric Edelman, Eliot Cohen—

Goldberg: Are you a neocon?

Christie: No.

Goldberg: What’s a neocon?

Christie: A neocon is someone who has a hyper-aggressive idea about America’s role in the world and about the use of force.

Goldberg: You just said you need a no-fly zone, a safe zone, more leadership in Syria. A safe zone means American pilots, American troops are at risk. That’s fairly aggressive.

Christie: You can call it whatever you want.

Goldberg: I’m seriously trying to understand. You know what happens once American troops start getting killed, God forbid. If under President Christie, American troops start getting killed, Americans are going to start asking why you’re in Syria trying to keep one bunch of lunatics from killing another bunch of lunatics.

Christie: We’re trying to keep a bunch of lunatics from killing us. The fact is that sending troops to Afghanistan did, in fact, hurt al Qaeda’s ability to kill us here. Right or wrong? So, same thing—

Goldberg: We haven’t been killed here by ISIS.

Christie: You want to wait for another 9/11 and then act?

Goldberg: Every day that an American soldier isn’t killed in the Middle East is a good day.

Christie: Yes, every day that an American soldier isn’t killed is a good day. But it is not a good day if what we’re doing is bringing us closer to American civilians being killed in New York City. American soldiers get paid to fight. American civilians shopping at the Apple store on Central Park, they’re not there to fight. The first job of an American president, first and foremost, is to protect the security of the 50 states, and sometimes that means going outside the 50 states to prevent an attack on America.

Goldberg: I’d rather do more schtick but I have a couple of other questions.

Christie: The schtick is totally initiated by you.

Goldberg: That’s a terrible lie.

Christie: Initiated by you.

Goldberg: Chutzpah.

Christie: I’m merely in a reactionary, defensive posture.

Goldberg: You’re not a neocon; you’re a reactionary. So how do you conduct this fight? Let’s go back to this. You’re governor of a state with a large Muslim population. How do you do this fight in a way that convinces people you’re not fighting Muslims, that you’re fighting members of a specific group?

Christie: You use a phrase like radical Islamic jihadists, so then you’re identifying who you’re fighting against. The folks in the local mosque in Paterson, the ones I interact with, they are not radical Islamist jihadists. Most of them are hardworking American citizens who practice Islam as their religion. So Hillary Clinton’s refusal to use that phrase makes it more likely that Muslims will be confused. Let’s just talk straight about who we’re fighting.

Goldberg: So, euphemism is confusing.

Christie: Say who you’re fighting. I have no truck with a Muslim who practices his religion.

Goldberg: The president’s view might be described as one that holds that ISIS is a criminal gang and that it would be dangerous to elevate them into something more than they are. How do you disagree?

Christie: This starts at his core. At his core he believes that American inaction trumps American action.

Goldberg: Don’t do stupid shit.

Christie: Right. That’s his core belief.

Goldberg: What’s wrong with “Don’t do stupid shit?”

Christie: You don’t know, as you’re doing it, whether it’s stupid or not. You try to get educated as best you can, but he’s done some pretty stupid shit under the philosophy of not doing stupid shit. So my point to you—it is operational, because he’s never run anything before, nor have most of the people around him, the ones he listens to, and there’s no strategy. I will tell you that the people I listen to tell me all the time that there is no overarching strategy here. It’s a series of one-offs. He makes these one-off decisions that he doesn’t think have a domino type of effect, but they do. Everything you do has an effect.

Goldberg: Does a president of the United States have the ability to make the Arab world more functional?

Christie: We’re talking about preventing the dysfunction in that world from killing Americans. I’m not trying to fix the Middle East. The overall strategy isn’t to be the world’s psychologist and marriage counselor; it’s to make sure that Americans don’t get slaughtered. That’s the first goal. If we achieve that goal, we can have other ones.

Goldberg: Does Assad have to go in order to solve this problem?

Christie: I think so.

Goldberg: And you can help that?

Christie: Listen, it wouldn’t be my first priority. But I don’t know how it gets fixed with him there. ISIS is in part an outgrowth of Assad’s conduct. So I don’t understand how it gets fixed if Assad is there. I understand the problem of, who’s next. If you’re asking me how it could get better if he stays, I don’t know how it could. And listen, it’s a complicated problem, but that’s why the American president has to have his priorities in order. Priority number one is to protect people here.

Goldberg: Do you think you would have known in 2011, 2012, if you were president, at the beginning of the Syrian civil war, that this is the way it would have gone. People always say they knew intervention would work, but isn’t this impossible to know?

Christie: Except here’s the problem: I don’t know if I would have known. But if I had drawn a red line in Syria, if I opened my big mouth and said, by the way, if Assad uses chemical weapons, I’m going to take him out—

Goldberg: Obama didn’t say that he would “take him out” in response to the use of chemical weapons. You would have taken him out?

Christie: Excuse me. The president said if he starts using chemical weapons against his people, that’s a red line that he shouldn’t have crossed, and then the Americans will take action.

Goldberg: He didn’t say, “Take him out.” So you think he should have overthrown Assad?

Christie: He should have kept his word. I don’t think under any interpretation we could say that the president kept his word.

Goldberg: He got rid of most of the chemical weapons, through the Russian deal.

Christie: And he invited the Russians into Syria.

Goldberg: The Russians have been in Syria for 50 years!

Christie: He invited them in a much different way. They haven’t been here the way they are now there in 50 years, right? My point to you, the word of the American president means something, so in 2011, I don’t know whether I would have looked into the crystal ball and the people around me would have looked into the crystal ball and known what we know now. But if I had gone out and said that if he uses chemical weapons, that’s a red line and we’re going to act, I would have acted. No one believes by “acting” he meant he was going to call in the Russians to negotiate a deal for him. I guarantee that he didn’t mean it. The problem is that words matter, actions matter, especially when they come form an American president.

Goldberg: What are you going to say to the Council on Foreign Relations today?

Christie: Same stuff I’m talking about with you.

Goldberg: Yeah, but don’t say it so colorfully.

Christie: No one will break my balls like you do.

Goldberg: I don’t break your balls. This is nothing.

Christie: This is ball-breaking.

Goldberg: You’re a prosecutor from New Jersey and you think this is ball-breaking? Pathetic.

Christie: You think I mean ball-breaking being painful?

Goldberg: Oh, you mean—

Christie: —This is ball-breaking!

Goldberg: The good ball-breaking.

Christie: Yeah, ball-breaking like where we come from. With a smile on your face.

Goldberg: Alright, that’s better. Because I thought—

Christie: —This is why we get off-track and you don’t get what you want from the interview because you—

Goldberg: —Who says I don’t get what I want? I got what I want. Maybe going off-track is the point?

Christie: You keep going off-track. That’s all I know.

Goldberg: Maybe the track isn’t track. You ever think of that?

Christie: What?

Goldberg: Do you think you can win the presidency?

Christie. Yes. Yes, I do.

Goldberg: You have the staying power to win New Hampshire and then everyone will say, “That’s a leader.”

Christie: I have to win some more than that. It won’t happen quickly. But if it’s not me, who’s it going to be?

Goldberg: Hillary Clinton? Marco Rubio? Ted Cruz?

Christie: Why Marco Rubio? I’m fascinated by this.

Goldberg: He’s a very smart, articulate young guy, great personal story—

Christie: —I didn’t ask you to give me what you read in the Times.

Goldberg: He’s very smart. I’ve talked to him. Very likable.

Christie: There’s not a lot of depth there.

Goldberg: Do you have huge foreign-policy depth?

Christie: No, but I have much greater depth at making decisions.

Goldberg: There’s no job that gets you ready for the presidency. It’s too big.

Christie: I didn’t say it got me ready. You asked me about depth. This is what happens—I give an answer and then you change the question in order to challenge the answer.

Goldberg: I’ll have to review the tape and see if that is true.

Christie: I think it is true. When you review the tape you will see that. I do not do that. I said I have depth and you said nothing prepares you for the presidency.

Goldberg: But it’s true.

Christie: Did I say I was prepared for the presidency?

Goldberg: You better say you’re prepared for the presidency. Isn’t that a lie that every candidate says?

Christie: You have to be prepared as you can possibly be, but nothing will ever prepare you for the presidency.

Goldberg: You seem to know more about foreign policy than you did when we had lunch in New York last year.

Christie: I spend a lot of time on this.

Goldberg: You’re past the maps—“This is Syria, this is Libya.”

Christie: That was hard at the beginning because I was never very good at maps. I got a D in geography in college. It was really bad.

Goldberg: You never even took geography.

Christie: I did. I got a D.

Goldberg: Fact check — you got an F.

Christie: Why would I say it if it wasn’t true?

Goldberg: There’s a little history in the current nominating process of people saying things that aren’t true.

Christie: I took geography at the University of Delaware. Freshman year, first semester. Really. My father said, “You got a D in maps?” I said, “It wasn’t just maps. It was rock formations.” He was like, “Rock formations? You got a D in maps. This is not what I sent you to college for.”

Goldberg: You know, if you’re commander in chief, they’ve got people for the maps. To help you with the maps.

Christie: I straightened-up on geography.

You know, I’ve had more organized therapy sessions than this interview.

Goldberg: You’re in therapy?