Chris Christie’s new book is nothing if not on brand—right down to the shouty, all-caps title stamped across its cover: LET ME FINISH: TRUMP, THE KUSHNERS, BANNON, NEW JERSEY, AND THE POWER OF IN-YOUR-FACE POLITICS.
As advertised, the former New Jersey governor delivers plenty of jabs at political enemies over the course of the book’s 400 pages. Former White House senior adviser Steve Bannon is described as “the only person I have ever met who can look pretentious and like an unmade bed at the very same time.” Later, he writes about a prickly conversation with Ohio Governor John Kasich and concludes, “Right there, I understood why so many people in politics despised” him. Dozens of pages of material are devoted to the presidential son-in-law, Jared Kushner, and his family, as well as a retelling of Christie’s own rise to power in New Jersey.
But beneath all the record-correcting and score-settling—Christie begins his book with an account of being fired as the head of President Donald Trump’s transition team—he offers a defense of the hyper-confrontational style that first made him famous, and later helped make Trump president.
Christie’s argument touches on a broader debate that has run throughout the Trump era. In elite political and media circles, the president’s various affronts to decorum—the name-calling, the vulgarity, the mean tweets and stump-speech taunts—constitute a scandal. To activists on the right (and, increasingly, the left), this hand-wringing among “civility fetishists” is silly and misplaced: What matters, the argument goes, is how politicians use their power, not whether they have good manners.
I met Christie at a hotel in midtown Manhattan on Tuesday afternoon to discuss whether the country really needs more “in-your-face politics.” He also talked about why Trump surrounds himself with “grifters” and “felons,” whether he could do a better job than Mike Pence as vice president, and what he thinks of the other Trump tell-all that came out this week. Our conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
McKay Coppins: Your book is framed in part as a defense of what you call “in-your-face politics.” Right now a lot of people feel like we need less of that. How do you respond to them?
Chris Christie: I disagree. When I talk about in-your-face politics, it’s about authenticity. It’s not a schtick. When I was governor, I would say, “Listen, if people want to have a confrontation with me, I’m not going to be a heavy bag.” I’m not going to initiate the confrontation, but in today’s society, if you decide you want a confrontation, a public official is not required to be demure and take it. It doesn’t mean you rise to every piece of bait, but you pick your spots.
I think what Trump did to the brand of in-your-face-politics—“You punch, I punch back; you take me on, I’m gonna take you on”—was that he didn’t have the polish that politics gives the people who have been in it for a while.
Coppins: What do you mean by “polish?”
Christie: The language he used, the swagger, the attitude. My arguments with people most of the time—not every time, but most of the time—were about issues. Trump’s would be like, “You know, I wish it were the old days, where we used to beat guys like that up and put them on a stretcher.” I never said anything like that.
Coppins: You said you can’t rise to every piece of bait. It seems like Trump does.
Christie: He does. He rises to every one of them. And that’s his philosophy—we’ve talked about this. He believes that no punch should be landed without a counterpunch being thrown, and I just don’t believe that’s true. I believe you don’t punch down. And he’s more than happy to punch down, all the time.
Coppins: Your book is part memoir, part political tell-all. But it’s also being received as part act of revenge against the people in Trump’s orbit you think treated you badly. Was that part of your motivation in writing it?
Christie: No. There’s stuff in the book about folks who I have a lot of genuine admiration and affection for: [former Trump campaign manager] Corey Lewandowski, [White House senior adviser] Kellyanne Conway, [former Trump deputy campaign manager] David Bossie, [former White House communications director] Hope Hicks. And then there are others I think deserve to be called out. I don’t think that makes it a tell-all, or a revenge piece. This is not a gossip book, like, Oh, I was in the room and he said this, and he dropped ketchup on his tie.
The world didn’t really need another Cliff Sims book to figure out [that] people in the first stage of the White House were backstabbing jerks who put themselves ahead of the president. I talk about that in there, but it’s not just dishing for the sake of dishing. I’m showing the ramifications for the country.
Coppins: Since you brought him up, are you feeling competitive with the Cliff Sims book? Do you want to outsell him?
Christie: Well, I want to outsell everybody. I’m very competitive. But I mean, someone asked me about him, and I couldn’t pick him out of a lineup. I was as inside with the Trump campaign as anybody—the first endorser, played Hillary Clinton in debate prep—and I didn’t know who Cliff Sims was! When his name came out with the book, I had to Google him to see what he looked like, and then I saw him and I was like, I don’t even recognize him.
But what the Cliff Sims book indicates is that there was so much disorder, dysfunction, and backstabbing in the first six months of that administration that anybody could wander into a meeting in the Oval Office. Here’s Cliff Sims, head of messaging, wandering into meetings—what the hell’s he doing there? And there was nobody watching the store, because everybody wanted to be with the president.
Coppins: You write that Trump is surrounded by “a revolving door of deeply flawed individuals—amateurs, grifters, weaklings, convicted and unconvicted felons.” What is it about the president that makes him gravitate to people like that?
Christie: One of his former staffers said to me recently, “He gives the least amount of loyalty to the people who are most loyal to him.” And I think that’s part of it. If he thinks you’re very loyal, he doesn’t pay any attention to you. He’s trying to win over the people who he doesn’t perceive as loyal.
I think he also, at times, hires on impulse. He meets somebody, he thinks they bring something to the table, and he just goes, Okay, I’ll hire you. Like, he offered secretary of state to Rex Tillerson the first time he met him. This is your representative to the world, who people have to believe is close enough to the president that when he speaks, he’s speaking for you. How can that be a person you met for the first time?
So I think there’s some impulse-buying. When you get into the Russia stuff, people ask, “Well, if all these people aren’t lying to cover something up, why are they lying?” It’s because, in my experience, bad people and stupid people lie for no reason.
Coppins: This is an argument I’ve heard against the collusion theories. When people point out that Trump’s former aides have been caught lying about Russia, the defense is that some of these people seem to lie about everything.
Christie: Right, I mean, what was Mike Flynn a truth teller about? Was Paul Manafort the font of truth? How about Rick Gates? George Papadopoulos? I mean, we’re not talking about stars here. I don’t think these people are necessarily lying to protect anything. I think it’s more that these are the kind of people that unfortunately, at times, Trump surrounds himself with.
The president doesn’t always get it wrong. But what you find is that his second choices are almost always better than his first ones.
Coppins: Speaking of which, there was speculation that you would be Trump’s next chief of staff when John Kelly left. I guess that would have made you his third choice. But in writing this book, were you consciously foreclosing that possibility?
Christie: Not at all. I sat with the president for 90 minutes and talked about the job. He didn’t offer it, but we had pretty deep discussions about it. Then I went home and slept on it, and came back the next morning and said, “Listen, I just don’t think it’s the right time for me.” In my mind, the book doesn’t have anything to do with—you’ve read the book, I mean, I think the book is not—
Coppins: It’s pretty kind to the president.
Christie: Yeah, I like the president. We were friends for 17 years. He’s really fun. I went out to dinner with him three or four times a year for 15 years. Before he ran for office, this was a really fun guy, who was entertaining as hell when you went out with him: funny, conversational, knew a lot of interesting stuff about a lot of interesting people, so he had a lot of great stories to tell.
That’s why I shared a lot of those personal stories about him, whether it was him excoriating me when I was late for dinner, or being the first guy to tell me I should get a Lap-Band, or ordering for me the first time we went out. I can’t tell you how many times people ask me, “What is it like to be friends with the president?” This book, I think, answers some of those questions, both positively and negatively.
Coppins: I’ve reported, like others, that Trump wanted you as his VP. He was talked into Pence at the last minute. Do you think you’d be doing a better job?
Christie: I’d be doing it differently.
Coppins: How so?
Christie: I really like Mike Pence. We’ve been friends for a long time. But we are profoundly different guys. Mike is kind of typical midwestern, calm, laid-back, almost back-seat kind of guy. And I’m a northeastern, aggressive bull in a china shop. I would be, I suspect, much more assertive with the president than Mike tends to be with anybody. Remember, Mike Pence just got to know Donald Trump. I’ve known him for so long, so I feel like I can be a little more blunt.