Former New Jersey Governor Chris Christie wants to be clear: He supports Donald J. Trump. But don’t you dare presume that he supports what Trump says or does.
Sure, he voted for Trump in 2016, but only reluctantly. And okay, he plans to vote for Trump again in 2020. But he’s adamantly opposed to many of the most consequential actions Trump has taken as president. He’ll even say so in public. Doesn’t that make him a good guy?
Christie did his damnedest Monday to convince a crowd at the Aspen Ideas Festival and his interviewer, the Atlantic editor in chief Jeffrey Goldberg, that his support for the president of the United States is morally and logically defensible.
It was tough in part because of his scathing, multi-count indictment of Trump. In 2016, Christie recounted, Jared Kushner called to say that Trump was “off the rails” in his attacks on Khizr Khan, whose son was killed in Iraq. Christie claimed credit for getting Trump to finally stop going after the gold-star father.
He said that Trump has a bad temperament; that his tweets, his outbursts, and his sense of entitlement aren’t ever going to change; and that he surrounded himself with “awful people” from the beginning of his presidency.
Christie agreed with the characterization of Trump’s hiring process as “a rolling shit show.”
In Christie’s telling, Trump hired an incompetent national security adviser, Mike Flynn, after being repeatedly warned against doing so in the strongest terms; should not have tapped Tom Price as the Health and Human Services secretary; and erred again by hiring Scott Pruitt to head the EPA. Reince Priebus was a poor choice for White House chief of staff, he said, and Jeff Sessions an incompetent attorney general. He doesn’t think Steve Bannon should have been permitted to stick around after the campaign. “And what the hell was Omarosa doing in the White House?” he demanded.
Jared Kushner? He lacks the experience and savvy to be in the White House, Christie said.
Ivanka? Christie said he warned Trump not to give formal jobs to any family members, as doing so would put them in the political crosshairs and hamper other staffers as they walked on eggshells to avoid giving any offense.
A couple of the sexual-assault allegations against Trump may be credible, Christie said, but he doesn’t know whether they’re true and the statute of limitations has passed.
Trump’s call for a Muslim ban was “ridiculous,” he said, and “absolutely not what this country is about.” The fact that Trump didn’t know what the nuclear triad was during a presidential debate scares him “to a degree,” Christie acknowledged. Trump’s statement after the hate march in Charlottesville was unacceptable, he said, as was his criticism of Robert Mueller and the Russia investigation.
In Christie’s telling, Trump’s failure to strike Iran was a mistake that sent the wrong signal. His child-separation policy was “simply the wrong thing to do.” And on immigration generally, Christie said he disagrees with the president.
So why does he support Trump? Goldberg kept pressing for answers.
Christie says that after Trump’s showings in Iowa, New Hampshire, and South Carolina, he was certain that the real-estate mogul would be the Republican nominee. He felt he could stay on the sidelines or support Trump, gain a seat at the table, and improve Trump’s behavior.
What’s more, he said, even though he has disagreements with Trump, he felt more aligned with the businessman than with Hillary Clinton and the Democrats in an unusual election when lots of voters disliked both candidates.
In general, he argued, Republicans are sticking with Trump because they prefer his policies to Medicare for All, college-debt forgiveness, and the Green New Deal, among other progressive ideas, just as Democrats stuck with Bill Clinton in 1996, despite all his bad behavior, because they much preferred his agenda on a wide range of issues.
That’s how the system works, Christie said.
But there’s a glaring hole in his logic.
Early in his appearance, Christie told a story about going to an event on Long Island, New York, where David Stern, the former NBA commissioner, expressed a desire to “save his soul.” Stern ticked off a long list of objections to Trump. “When are you finally going to stand up?” Stern finally demanded of Christie.
“I ran against him!” Christie replied.
The single greatest thing you can do in American democracy to oppose a politician, Christie told the crowd in Aspen, “is to run and to try to beat that person.” What’s more, he suggested, America needs more moderates.
Christie could run against Trump again. Or he could urge another Republican to run against him in an attempt to get a superior standard-bearer through the GOP primary.
But he isn’t doing that. He’s talking as if choosing between Trump and whomever Democrats nominate is the only option. In the circumstances, that’s mad.
As Christie tells it, Trump wasn’t his first choice in 2016.
Then Trump was nominated and elected, and quickly staffed his administration with “awful people,” appointing multiple incompetents to lead Cabinet agencies.
He chose an unfit national security adviser, took the wrong side on immigration, failed in a national tragedy, impeded White House staff with his nepotism, irresponsibly criticized the Russia investigation, and made egregious political and moral errors besides.
And now Christie’s first choice in 2020 is … Trump?
That’s not a morally or logically coherent stance for Christie. In the past, Republicans challenged incumbents in their own party, including Gerald Ford and George H. W. Bush. Today, Republicans who grasp Trump’s shortcomings, as Christie demonstrably does, have a moral obligation to oppose his renomination. Those who don’t try are complicit hereafter in the very worst things that Trump does. Verbally scolding him is not nearly enough.