Chris Christie (AP/Jim Cole)

The truth about Chris Christie: Behind all the hype, he's just like Donald Trump

While the GOP hopeful presents himself as a serious establishment choice, the reality is far less glamorous


Heather Digby Parton
December 4, 2015 5:56PM (UTC)

Governor Chris Christie seems to having something of a renaissance in the press these days. The influential Manchester Union Leader,the leading conservative newspaper in New Hampshire, endorsed him and he's inched up a bit in the polls there, but a guy who was relegated to the kiddie table in the last presidential debate is suddenly getting more attention than his numbers would indicate is called for.

A little research shows that he started to get a bit more traction in the press after a specific event: the Paris terrorist attacks. One might wonder why that would be considering that he's not exactly a foreign policy expert (not that any of the GOP candidates are except perhaps for Lindsey Graham who didn't even make it to the kids table last time). Apparently, even though he's really just another Governor with no military or diplomatic experience the fact that his state is next to New York where the 9/11 terrorist attacks took place and he was a federal prosecutor makes him a reassuring expert.

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The prosecutor part of the story is interesting since he's been fudging it a bit for years. Christie's experience prior to being U.S. Attorney was as a corporate lawyer and major Bush bundler. He had very little political experience and none as a prosecutor before being appointed. (You may recall that the Bush administration treated these jobs as purely political appointments so many of its nominees were hacks like Christie.) On the campaign trail and even in one of the early debates he claimed he was appointed by President Bush on September 10th 2001 and the impression he always gives is that his first day on the job was 9/11. But the truth is that he didn't actually become US Attorney for several weeks afterwards. It's not terribly important but it shows a certain propensity to gild the lily.

In his stump speech he commonly makes the claim that he is particularly qualified on national security because he prosecuted terrorists. He says, "I'm the only person in this national conversation who has used the PATRIOT Act, signed off on it, convicted terrorists because of it" as if that makes him especially qualified on national security.

If you're curious about the kind of prosecutions he brought, NPR did an episode of "This American Life" on one of his biggest cases back in 2005, the case of Hemant Lakhani. Katherine Mangu-Ward of Reason helpfully wrote up a nice little review of the show (which you can listen to in full, here) which she describes as "a tale of ineptitude, entrapment, and bureaucratic self-perpetuation, starring very young U.S. attorney Christopher Christie."

Is it ever. Chris Hayes wrote back in 2006 about the case for The Nation:

In August 2003 ... the New York dailies breathlessly reported what one US official called an "incredible triumph in the war against terrorism," the arrest of Hemant Lakhani, a supposed terrorist mastermind caught red-handed attempting to acquire a surface-to-air missile. Only later did the government admit that the "plot" consisted of an FBI informant begging Lakhani to find him a missile, while a Russian intelligence officer called up Lakhani and offered to sell him one.

This terrorist mastermind tried to pay the fake arms dealer with a personal check.

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Lakhani was a 70 year old con artist who, as Reason put it, "gets sent to jail for buying a fake missile from a fake arms dealer to be delivered to a fake terrorist group at an airport Hilton." Not that he didn't think he was actually participating in a terrorist conspiracy. But the idea that he could have actually pulled one off is very far fetched. Not that Christie lost any sleep over it. He said:

"I'm not going to sit around and second guess it. What was done was done, and I think ultimately the jury decided that question...there are good people and bad people. Bad people do bad things. Bad people have to be punished. These are simple truths. Bad people must be punished. ..I don't have a crystal ball and I don't know, if this had fallen apart, what Hemant Lakhani would have done next.

That's the kind of guy I want in federal prison, and so that's where he's going to go. And at the end, that's the success of the Lakhani case."

That pretty much sums up the level of sophistication Chris Christie brought to his job as a federal prosecutor.

As for his foreign policy chops, recall his ill-fated trip to London last year to prove his diplomatic acumen. This tweet from New York Times reporter Maggie Haberman sums it up handily:

Yesterday he demonstrated his unique understanding of national security at a gathering of the Republican Jewish Coalition where he said:

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For the first time since 9/11 I think we're going to have to confront the loss of American life on American soil to terrorist conduct. Now there's many people today who are trying to speculate about what happened in San Bernardino, but let me tell you as a former prosecutor, from the time I began to watch the events unfold last night, I was convinced that was a terrorist attack.

And the president continues to wring his hands and say "we'll see" but those folks dressed in tactical gear with semi-automatic weapons came there to do something. And let's remember everybody. If a center for the developmentally disabled in San Bernardino California can be a target for a terrorist attack then every place in America is a target for a terrorist attack.

First of all, if San Bernardino is officially classified as terrorism it would hardly be the first time since 9/11. Setting aside the controversy about domestic terrorism for another day, we have certainly had other terrorist attacks perpetrated by Islamic extremists. The Boston bombing, the Ft Hood and Chattanooga Tennessee shootings are all examples. And needless to say, "folks dressed in tactical gear" as a sign of terrorist intent is daft and the idea that a workplace might be the target for gun violence is something we've known for a very long time. None of this should have been news to anyone.

The crowd lustily applauded his assertion that he "knew" it was a terrorist attack, so it seems his odd lack of precision and clarity is working for him in front of Republican crowds. They really like swaggering braggarts who don't have a clue this year. But it's still irresponsible for any presidential candidate to be so cavalier at a time such as this.

Christie was supposed to be a polished mainstream politician who is particularly good at security issues. But his reputation as a prosecutor is hardly stellar, his tenure as Governor is marked by corruption scandals and his run for president is embarrassing. The fact is that he's really the political establishment's Trump --- a crude bully who "tells it like it is" but without The Donald's independence, billions or celebrity charisma. They'd love it if Christie could move out of the pack and fill that role so they could take advantage of the angry zeitgeist without risking losing control but it's unlikely to happen. The real Trump is still going strong and he makes Christie look dull and plodding by comparison. Of course, underneath his bluster he really is just a dull and plodding political hack, but that's exactly what the establishment's looking for. The voters appear to want the real thing.

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Heather Digby Parton

Heather Digby Parton, also known as "Digby," is a contributing writer to Salon. She was the winner of the 2014 Hillman Prize for Opinion and Analysis Journalism.

MORE FROM Heather Digby Parton

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